History and Art

In my art history class, I am currently learning about the Romanticism movement, and just how un-romantic it really was. It was a movement fueled by raw emotion, and for the first time, the desire to illustrate current events in works of art. My favorite work from this period is Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, completed in 1819. I was lucky enough to see this massive painting in person when I visited the Louvre in Paris over spring break, and after learning about its content and significance, it made my obsession with this painting even stronger.

The story behind this piece was based entirely on fact and a current event that made the public question the leadership of the aristocrats. In 1816, a French naval frigate called the Medusa set sail to Africa with the intent to colonize the country of Senegal. With 400 men aboard, headed by an untrained aristocratic “captain”, it struck a sandbank and sank. There was a shortage of lifeboats aboard the ship, so the captain decided that only the members of the upper class would get a seat on the lifeboats. That left 150 men from the lower classes on a make-shift raft, stranded in the middle of the ocean. It was not until two weeks later that their raft was spotted. Only ten men survived. The hell that these men must have endured those two weeks is unthinkable, even resulting to cannibalism in an attempt to survive.

Raft of the MedusaThe news of this disaster spread like wildfire, for obvious reasons. But in the 1800’s, there was no way for these people to see what had happened to these men. Géricault’s painting allowed for this. It showed the raw emotion and grotesque picture that would have been played out on that raft. The few survivors are seen calling to a distant ship desperate to be saved among piles of dead, bloated, yellowing corpses. Their faces twisted with agony, their bodies physically destroyed; complete shells of their former selves. He picked this moment to depict for a reason- it is the most powerful psychological impact.

Géricault displayed his masterpiece at the annual Salon in Paris. As you would expect, it had very mixed responses. Some saw the value in the piece as it made a political statement, but many criticized the piece because it was so difficult to look at. I mean, I can’t exactly blame them for this considering for the past 1,000 plus years, art was created to be pleasing to look at. What would you have though of this piece if you had seen it at the Salon?

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