On 5th July 1816, the wreck of the French ship “Medusa” ran aground on the West African coast. Ten survivors washed ashore, and recounted the horrors that they had experienced – dehydration, death, and even cannibalism. Their story became something of an international scandal at the time, with many using the event to justify their opposition to the newly restored French monarchy. However, for a young artist determined to make his mark, the infamously gruesome shipwreck provided the perfect scene for a painting.
The Raft of the Medusa is a work of many contrasts – by understanding these, and how they complement each other, we can begin to appreciate this paintings excellence. Look at the despair that pervades the scene – pale greenish corpses lay scattered, a solitary man in the foreground contemplates the loss of his son, while a dark and menacing sky looms overhead. Using a Caravaggio style light and shade technique (known as ‘claire-obscure’), Géricault continually draws our eye to the mangled, luminous bodies upon the raft. However, with this same light, he also draws our eye to those men clinging to hope. Notice how easily we can perceive their desperation and optimism as they attempt to wave down the miniscule mast of a ship in the distance. From the contortion of their muscles as they clamber upon one another, to the edges of their outstretched hands, hope and despair are set against each other within this tragic scene.
The unequal distribution of power is also highlighted in The Raft of the Medusa. Most subtly, the artist comments on political inequality. Géricault was an abolitionist, and by placing a black man at the highest point of the painting (waving the red and white flag), he used this work to display his support for the abolition of slavery. Primarily however, Géricault contrasts the violent power of nature with man’s feebleness. Notice how frail the makeshift raft looks as large waves brew behind it, while black storm clouds overhead further the despair of the scene. However, through his inclusion of these powerful natural elements, Géricault creates an impression of vitality and movement in a work of art, paradoxically, about death.
The greatest contrast however within The Raft of the Medusa is how such a hideous subject matter can be translated into powerful (and beautiful) art. Whilst this monumental work undoubtedly inspires revulsion initially, it also says a great deal about man’s resilience in the face of tragedy, and this is beautiful. In this way, Géricault proves that art need not be confined to the portrayal of great heroes or religious figures, but can instead depict the grand struggles of ordinary people and the power of nature. It is with this message that The Raft of the Medusa became the defining work of art of the Romantic period.