Baroque and Beyond C. 1600–1850


What is The Raft of the Medusa?

Like Goya’s Third of May, 1808, another early nineteenth-century painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by French Romantic painter Theodore Géricault (1791–1824) emphasizes the pain and suffering of victims amidst seemingly insurmountable odds. The Raft of the Medusa is a great contemporary history painting that depicts a horrible accident at sea when a ship filled with French colonists ran aground. There were not enough lifeboats for all aboard, and so a barely floating lifeboat was built for the 152 seamen, which was eventually cut from the main lifeboat by the captain and the officers and left floating at sea. Thirteen days later, only fifteen suffering passengers remained on the raft after withstanding disease, starvation, and cannibalism. The story caused a sensation in France, as it was discovered that the captain of the ship was an inexperienced aristocrat who was made captain through corruption. Géricualt depicts the raft as the passengers spot a passing ship, their first hope at rescue. Twisted yet idealized bodies, some dead, are sprawled over the surface of the tiny wood raft while the dark, foreboding ocean looms along the horizon. The viewer’s eye is brought upwards, as the raft is raised on the swell of a wave, to the outstretched arm of a frantic passenger waving a tattered red cloth, trying to get attention. The Raft of the Medusa incorporates Romantic perceptions of nature with a sense of heroism, adventure, and injustice.


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