the Raft of Medusa, Theodore Gericault. Rome, 1819.
This is my second semester of Art History, and I’ve seen beautiful pieces, boring pieces, and pieces with amazing meanings behind them. This, however, is one of the ones that stood out. Maybe because it brought tears to my eyes, perhaps just because it is so chilling.
Gericault made this painting with no patron, which was very risky to do back in the day, especially because the “Raft of Medusa” was a real disaster story.
150 men built a raft from their damaged ship on their way to Africa. After 13 days they were discovered, though only 15 men remained. This was considered a government scandal, and to paint it was risky, especially since this painting’s dimensions were huge. (16x23ft) No one painted large paintings without a Patron.
Gericault interviewed the survivors, built a copy of the raft in his studio, and even went as far as to go to the morgue and sketch dead bodies to help inspire him. After awhile, he took human remains and kept them in his studio.
One of his models, soon to be famous artist Eugene Delecroix said he literally ran from his studio after finishing his job. In short, Gericault fell into a madness doing this painting.
This painting’s rough sketches started off with their ship of rescue in the right corner, quite large. As he continued on, the ship got smaller, and smaller, until it was but a small speck on the horizon.
However, the men on the raft can see the ship. They have been traveling for 13 days, have lost countless men, have had to turn to cannibalism, have been drinking salt water. They are desperate, and this painting illustrates their last burst of hope, their utter desperation as they wave for the ship.
The worst part? The ship does not see them. It sails away.
It isn’t until later on that day the ship returned to rescue the men, it was said that they were near catatonic when they found them, they had accepted they were dead, despite finally being rescued.
This piece is haunting. Beautiful and Terrifying.
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