What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Théodore Géricault’s Masterpiece: Raft of the Medusa (c. 1818-19)

“The truly gifted individual does not fear obstacles, because he knows that he can surmount them; indeed they often are an additional asset; the fever they are able to excite in his soul is not lost; it even often becomes the cause of the most astonishing productions.” ~ Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa is not an easy painting to study or appreciate, but it deserves our attention; for we can learn much from the real-life tragic event that inspired it, as well as the feverish dedication and skill with which it was painted.

Measuring a whopping 23 by 16 feet, this epic oil on canvas masterpiece now hangs in a gallery near the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris.

Le Radeau de la Méduse was Théodore Géricault’s most famous and shocking work of art.

Le Radeau de la Meduse by Théodore Géricault c. 1818-19

The Raft of the Medusa portrays a brief moment of euphoria as the men on the raft spot another ship in the distance, hoping and praying to be rescued after thirteen horrific days at sea. The Argus can only just be seen on the horizon.

You can almost hear the men’s hoarse cries in an attempt to draw attention to their desperate plight, mustering their last ounce of strength to shout and wave a stained, ripped shirt. This is their last chance of survival…

Théodore Géricault, a courageous, passionate, Romantic era French painter and lithographer, sadly passed away from tuberculosis at the tender age of thirty three. Géricault didn’t live long enough to see his paining achieve its greatness, but that seems to be the way of things for many artists and creatives.

Probably the ghost of Vincent van Gogh would be flabbergasted (but happy), to know the sums of money passing hands for his prized paintings; or of his universal popularity and posthumous fame. Yet of the prolific oeuvre of 900 paintings he produced in his lifetime, he sold only one:  Red Vineyard at Arles.

It is a curious phenomena. Many artists, composers and writers were under appreciated or misunderstood in their prime… In the spirit of originality they were simply being true to themselves, following their inner compass, regardless of the trends, thoughts and fashions of the time.

Who knows what Géricault might have produced had he been gifted with a few more years to bestow his artistic talent on the world. But in my humble opinion he has earned a place at the table of the greats with this heart-rending work.

The Raft of the Medusa depicts the harrowing and calamitous historical outcome of the ill-fated voyage of the French Navy’s forty gun Frigate Méduse, carrying around 400 passengers (including the new Governor and his wife),  plus various French officials who were en-route to reclaim Senegal from the British.

Wreck of frigate Méduse

The Méduse ran aground on the Bank of Arguin off the coast of Mauritania in the summer of 1816. The shipwreck and its raft tragedy elicited considerable public emotion, making Méduse one of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Age of Sail.

An incompetent captain

Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was installed as ship’s captain by King Louis XVIII in a political manoeuvre because of his support for the monarchy after the Bourbon Restoration.

Louis XVIII of France in Coronation Robes by Francois Gerard

The king overlooked the fact that he had hardly sailed for twenty years, and was clearly unsuitable for the posting. It was an act of unparalleled hubris by the French monarch, as Monsieur de Chaumareys proved himself to be incompetent and grossly negligent for the unnecessary deaths of many of his passengers and crew.

The Méduse was not the first vessel to not carry enough lifeboats for all its passengers, and sadly it has not been the last. There were only enough lifeboats to accommodate 250 passengers on the voyage should the need arise. And arise it did.

In his attempt to impress the new governor and important guests, the captain sailed too fast and too close to the shore (ignoring the warnings of a senior crew member), in his bid to arrive at their before the accompanying vessels. Inevitably, the Medusa struck a large sandbank.

Perhaps the ignominy made too big a dent in his pride, as de Chaumareys refused to offload the heavy cannons on board the Méduse so she could be re-floated. Another unconscionable decision with others to follow that would cost more lives.

Stranded off the West African coast, the Méduse listed helplessly. Initially, it was decided that the lifeboats would make two return runs to shore (around thirty miles away) in order to get everyone to safety, and a raft was hastily built, twenty metres long and seven metres wide, to transport the ship’s cargo.

Raft of Méduse at the moment of its abandonment by Alexandre Corréard

However, inclement weather whipped up a storm that hit them on 5th July 1816 and the captain, fearing the Méduse would break apart, gave the order to abandon ship. Seventeen soldiers and crew remained on the ship in order to protect her cargo, while 250 passengers were placed in the lifeboats and 147 souls were packed like sardines onto the raft, which was being towed by the lifeboats.

Human nature always seems to be either at its worst or its best during times of crisis, and there does not appear to be any signs of heroism emerging from this particular historical debacle.

The people in the lifeboats (perhaps fearing for their own lives), cut the ropes towing the raft after a bit, and with barely any food, drink or life sustaining supplies and no way of steering or navigating, the raft drifted into the swell of the Atlantic…

The apparent cruelty and callousness with which they were jettisoned by the passengers in the lifeboats would unleash hellish conditions and unbridled panic on the unfortunate men (and one woman) clinging to the raft, as they rapidly perished through drowning, starvation, suicide, disease, fighting and murder.

Although shocking, it’s probably not surprising that some of them eventually resorted to cannibalism.

The centre of the raft was the safest place and violent attacks broke out as the men clambered and fought to be away from the exposed edges, the prowling sharks and the unforgiving waves…

After thirteen days of being tossed around at sea, one of the accompanying ships, the Argus, saw and subsequently rescued the survivors from what was left of the raft. They found only fifteen men left alive from the 147, and a further five of these died when they reached land, including the last African crew member, Jean-Charles.

Suddenly, here was a historical painting not of heroic deeds, not drawn from ancient Greek or Roman mythology, but of real people struggling with a contemporary disaster, shown to the French nation in the form of Géricault’s brutally visual social commentary on the tragedy.

To add insult to injury de Chaumareys sent a salvage crew back to the Méduse to recover her cargo of gold. The ship had not been broken apart as he had thought, but remained intact, with only three of the seventeen men who stayed aboard still alive after fifty four days.

During his court martial in 1817, de Chaumareys was acquitted on three counts: of abandoning his squadron, of failing to re-float his ship and of abandoning the raft. However, he was found guilty on two counts: of incompetent and complacent navigation and of abandoning the Méduse before all her passengers had been taken off.

The verdict carried a potential death penalty, but de Chaumareys was sentenced to only three years in jail.

However, I do feel the British must have had their fair share of bumbling idiots put in unsuitable positions of power and responsibility by favour of royal or noble patrons, without due consideration to the consequences of their actions.

Even though The Raft of the Medusa must have highlighted further the embarrassment and subsequent attempt to cover-up the shipwreck by the French monarchy, its sizeable depiction on canvas was nonetheless displayed at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1819.

Raft of the Medusa shown in Salon Carre of the Louvre depicting Gericault’s painting on display by Nicolas Sebastien Maillot c. 1831

King Louis XVIII commented: “Monsieur Géricault, you’ve painted a shipwreck, but it’s not one for you.”

Its grisly, visual storytelling wasn’t so far removed from the tenets of the Romantic Movement: to arouse emotions, feelings and passion; reacting against cool, hard logic and depicting individuals in peril. Although Romantic in genre there is still an element of Classicism in the work.

The underlying theme of Romanticism was that not everything could be understood.

“Feel the forces of nature in all of their grandeur and power so you feel insignificant. Only then can you feel part of something bigger.” ~ Edmund Burke

People were smaller parts of a larger, mysterious whole; usually painted at the mercy of the forces of nature in wild and untamed landscapes.

Romantic art works were designed to make people feel overwhelmed, and I think when we look at this painting, the best word to describe the Raft of the Medusa is overwhelming….

Géricault grafted and crafted a work that was overwhelming in subject matter beyond anything that had been painted by anyone before.  It confronts us with strongly visceral material: physical, mental and emotional suffering, all the more poignant for its tiny element of hope.

Despite the painting’s similarities with the historical event it portrays, there are notable differences. For all its authenticity, Géricault may have decided to heighten the drama for aesthetic considerations. There are more people on the raft in the painting than there were left in real life, and the weather was sunny and calm on the day of the rescue, not brooding and stormy. But we’ll forgive him for taking such artistic licence!

“With the brush we merely tint, while the imagination alone produces colour.” ~ Théodore Géricault

The entire Raft of the Medusa project was completed by Géricault in eighteen months.

The right hand triangle of tangled, contorted bodies is crowned by a black man, waving a makeshift flag at the ship on the horizon. Perhaps he was also commenting on slavery, as well as the desire to survive, for Géricault was an Abolitionist.

The scene is dark, it does not hide the madness, desperation and death that these souls experienced, but Géricault still manages to impart some aesthetic beauty into the work. The figures are obviously Baroque in their physical appearance, muscular and of the type you might see in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (who was a major influence on Géricault).

The lighting is somewhat “Caravaggesque”, after the Italian artist closely associated with tenebrism—the use of violent contrast between light and dark.

It could be said that there is also the influence of Michelangelo if you study the detail of the underworld from his immortal Renaissance masterpiece, the Last Judgement on the Sistine Chapel.

Detail of The Last Judgement by Michelangelo

“Michelangelo sent shivers up my spine, these lost souls destroying each other inevitably conjure up the tragic grandeur of the Sistine Chapel.” ~ Théodore Géricault

A literary influence is also prominently on display in the painting, Géricault’s clever way of making the viewer question what they would do in a similar situation. He does this by depicting a character from a well-known story to his audience of the time: Count Ugolino from Dante’s Divine Comedy.

It is thought he ‘borrowed’ the image from a painting of Ugolini by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).

Ugolino and his sons starving to death in the tower by Henry Fuseli c. 1806

We see the dolorous, mature, grey haired man, red scarf draped over his head, his right elbow on his knee, sitting hunched in grief and resignation with his left arm resting over his dead son.

Géricault is asking us through these figures representing Count Ugolino and his lifeless son: is hunger stronger than grief?

In Inferno, Dante writes that the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying Count Ugolino’s children begged him to eat their bodies.

“’Father our pain’, they said,
‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away’.
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)


“… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me”
(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70–73)
Research above and beyond the call of duty!

In his quest to make an impact and accurately depict the events that took place on the raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault first read damning newspaper accounts in the Journal des débats which appeared on 13 September 1816, then contacted two survivors from the shipwreck: the cartographer Alexandre Corréard and surgeon Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny.

They had co-written a book about their ordeal and agreed to meet him and relay their traumatic experiences. He put them up in his home during this time.

Géricault learned that the ship’s carpenter had also survived, and duly invited him to build a smaller scale replica of the actual raft in his studio. He was then able to study the perspective of a realistic scene for his epic painting.

Portrait of the Carpenter on the Méduse by Théodore Géricault

And if you didn’t think that that was enough, he also visited the morgue to sketch and study corpses and cadavers, so that he could accurately portray their lifeless, pallid expressions and complexions.

Géricault  even took the unprecedented step of bringing body parts back to his studio to paint. The stench of putrid flesh must have been overwhelming, not to mention the most unpleasant and macabre nature of this undertaking.

Study of body parts in preparation for the Raft of the Medusa

That he went to such lengths over this painting is almost incomprehensible.

Preparatory work of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

Composition and structure

The majority of the raft’s inhabitants are arranged in two pyramid type structures along with the small sail, while the open space at the forefront of the raft makes it seem closer and invites us to step aboard if we dare…

The way the light shines and reflects on the living (and dead flesh), in a brief moment of euphoria as they spot a ship on the horizon is really quite eerie. The large wave on the left threatens to engulf them all before they can be rescued, their situation is still precarious. The sun’s rays illuminating the sky from beyond the horizon offsets the foreboding dark clouds. There is not much left of the raft itself at this stage.

French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix posed as the dark haired figure lying face down at the front of the painting with his arm stretched out in front of him.

Delacroix was a friend and admirer of Géricault, and later painted his famous Barque of Dante along similar thematic lines.

“Géricault allowed me to see his Raft of Medusa while he was still working on it. It made so tremendous an impression on me that when I came out of the studio I started running like a madman and did not stop till I reached my own room.” ~ Eugène Delacroix

The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

The raft of the Medusa was exhibited in London in 1820 at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, from 10th June until the end of the year, and was seen by around 40,000 visitors. It proved more popular in London, partly because it was hung low to the ground (unlike at the Salon where its high position lessened its monumental impact).

Influences on Géricault for The Raft of the Medusa

French contemporary artists that would have left their mark on Géricault and influenced his approach and execution of the Raft of the Medusa, were Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Jean Gros and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.

From Wikipedia:

Several English and American paintings including The Death of Major Pierson by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815)—also painted within two years of the event—had established a precedent for a contemporary subject. Copley had also painted several large and heroic depictions of disasters at sea which Géricault may have known from prints: Watson and the Shark (1778), in which a black man is central to the action, and which, like The Raft of the Medusa, concentrated on the actors of the drama rather than the seascape;

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 (1791), which was an influence on both the style and subject matter of Géricault’s work; and Scene of a Shipwreck (1790s), which has a strikingly similar composition. A further important precedent for the political component was the works of Francisco Goya, particularly his The Disasters of War series of 1810–12, and his 1814 masterpiece The Third of May 1808.

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824)

Born in Rouen to a wealthy family, young Theo was first educated in his art by the painter Carle Vernet, in the sytle of English sporting art. Many of his earlier works were mostly of horses or with a military theme, and sometimes combined both.

Théodore Géricault in his studio c. 1818

He was allowed to paint the magnificent horses in their stables at Versailles. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin taught him classical figure composition, but Géricault decided to self-direct his education at the Louvre from 1810 to 1815, copying works by Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.

His last works were a series of ten paintings of the insane, the patients of a friend, Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, a pioneer in psychiatric medicine, with each subject exhibiting a different affliction. Five are known to have survived, including the Insane Woman. ‘Les monomaniacs’ portraits are subtle and brilliantly nuanced.

Interesting history of the artist by Dr. Christian Conrad:

In addition to his influence on Delacroix, Géricault’s work had an important effect on Edouard Manet and the future impressionists. JMW Turner even strapped himself to the mast of ship to experience being out in a storm in the quest for authenticity!

Géricault could be considered the pivotal founding figure of modern art.

The event and the painting inspired the German composer Hans Werner Henze, who wrote a suitably epic oratorio on the subject, Das Floß der Medusa.

The powerful presence and authenticity of this work; its scope, its grisly subject matter and enthusiastic, atmospheric rendering will ensure the Raft of the Medusa remains in the cannon of humanity’s greatest art works.

All I can say is I’m glad I wasn’t there! Thankfully lessons were learned from this tragic episode of French Maritime history. The Gouvion de Saint-Cyr Law ensured that promotions in the French military would thereafter be based solely on merit.

“Our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa.” ~ Jules Michelet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.