The Raft of the Medusa is an oil painting of 1818–1819 by the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Completed when the artist was 27, the work has become an icon of French Romanticism.
It is an over-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on 2 July 1816. On 5 July 1816, at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practised cannibalism. Source [WikiPedia]
- Its muse is not myth but history – The Medusa (or Méduse) was a French naval frigate that boasted 40 guns and fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. Remarkably, the ship survived these maritime battles only to crash on a sandbank in 1816 during an attempt to colonize Senegal. A shortage of lifeboats sent sailors scrambling to build a raft. Only 10 of approximately 150 people who boarded the raft lived through this catastrophe. Shortly thereafter, Géricault drew his inspiration from the accounts of two survivors.
- Géricault did exhaustive research before laying brush to canvas – Obsessed with this tragic tale, Géricault not only interviewed and sketched the Medusa crewmates, but also read everything he could find about the harrowing event. He even attended the indictment trial of the ship’s captain, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys. Dozens of sketches followed. Géricault experimented with various models and wax figures, studied drowned cadavers at the morgue, and carefully planned how to fill the massive canvas he’d prepared for his masterpiece.
- It’s bigger than you’d expect – The Raft of the Medusa measures roughly 16 feet by 23.5 feet, making it almost as large as life—the raft itself was 23 feet by 66 feet.
- Géricault even had the raft reconstructed – The carpenter Chaumareys tasked with transforming the doomed Medusainto a raft was employed by the painter to build a true-to-life model in his studio. From there, Géricault used the raft as an eerie model.
- The Raft of the Medusa depicts the latter part of a 13-day journey – There were approximately 150 seamen on the Medusa, and they died quickly and gruesomely. The first night, 20 expired from suicide, fighting, and being washed overboard. By day four, only 67 remained. To staunch their starvation, they turned to cannibalism. On the eighth day, things went from really bad to brutal as the hardier survivors pitched overboard the weak and wounded, still alive but helpless to save themselves. By July 17, 1816, only 15 men remained when a ship called Argus happened upon them, rescuing this surviving 10 percent; five died soon afterward.
- A sign of hope lies on The Raft of the Medusa’s horizon – The men toward the painting’s right side flail to snare the attention of a potential rescue boat so far in the distance it’s easy to miss. Some scholars read this element as representing the vanity of hope, since there’s no way such a distant ship could see their distress signal, while others suggest this wee ship to be Argus, on the verge of rescuing these sailors from the brink of death.
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