While cleaning my basement I stumbled across a pile of old notebooks and textbooks from my first two years of college. I began sorting through them to decide which to save, which to throw out, which to sell or give away. I was moving quickly until I came across my Art History notebook from last spring semester. I sat down on the couch and began reading over my notes as if I’d just found an old copy of my favorite book. I was reminiscing over all the artwork I’d studied less than a year ago. I reviewed ones I’d disliked and ones I’d loved very much all with the same excitement to be refreshing my memory.
I came across The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault and was greeted with the same heartbreak I’d experienced the first time I saw it in class. My notes stated:
- 19th century France
- Depiction of a contemporary event (real life, not myth)
- Subject: The Medusa was a royal French frigate captained by an elite man with no real sailing experience. The ship needed to be evacuated after crashing on a sandbank, but there were not enough life boats for all the people on board. Only the rich, elite, aristocratic passengers are allowed on the lifeboats. The rest of the 150 passengers (middle class) are left to build a raft. After 13 days at sea, only 10 out of the 150 survived. Aboard the raft survivors fought, killed each other, killed themselves, turned to cannibalism, etc.
- Depicts the brutality that ensued aboard the raft. The palette Géricault chose to work with enhances the sense of death and decaying bodies. It heightens the grotesque reality of what happened.
- Géricault interviewed survivors, studied cadavers, and practiced creating his figures with wax sculptures
- A small boat in the distance may be viewed in two ways – the survivors waiving at a boat that will never see them or a boat on its way to rescue them
- Huge painting of approx. 16×24 feet (figures are near life-size)
- Exhibited at the Salon of 1819
- Was either loved or hated. Many despised the piece because it made known such a shameful, disgusting act by the French people. Others loved it for making such an important political statement about the country. It was a very controversial piece.
This piece is by far the most memorable work I studied that semester. I think it really struck me because up until them most of the work we’d studied had been mythological. Even if it was based on a real event, many of the paintings had been created so long after the event that had taken place. Géricault however began working on this painting as soon as he heard of the story. I find it extremely courageous of Géricualt to use his platform as a talented painter to make a political statement about a horrific event which he refused to let society ignore. The painting was exhibited just three years after the event itself.
There is something so eerie about this painting. At first I did believe it was mythological, so when I learned it was something that had actually happened I was in shock. This painting provides me with a variety of so many different emotions. Disgust, fear, sympathy. It’s creepiness and sadness are what make it so intriguing. At first you want to look away, because you think you should, but you can’t even if you tried.
When my professor said that this painting now lives in the Louvre a wave of guilt came over me. I had been to the Louvre the year before and hadn’t seen this piece. The year I went to Paris I’d had no art history classes under my belt. I didn’t know what to look for besides the Mona Lisa. I might have walked right past this piece without even knowing. I might have even looked at it in passing, but it didn’t make any impression on my memory because I hadn’t known the story or anything about it at all. If I could go back in time, I know I would be in awe. I’d stand there for hours.
Back to the Louvre I must go…