Thoughts On: Raft Of The Medusa - Hope In Meaningless Tragedy


Raft Of The Medusa - Hope In Meaningless Tragedy

Thoughts On: Raft Of The Medusa (1819)

A look at a Romantic depiction of death and tragedy.

Raft of The Medusa is an iconic French Romanticist painting by Théodore Géricault. This depicts a story of tragic hubris and deception. In 1816 a French colonial ship called the Medusa set sail towards Senegal. The ship, captained by an incompetent Ancien Régime who had not sailed a ship in over 20 years, got stuck in a sandbank, stranding the entire crew of over 150 people. The captain had only brought enough lifeboats for himself and a dozen or so others, and so abandoned the majority of his crew - approximately 150 men. They all attempted to build a raft and save themselves, but, after 13 days of sailing, only 10 managed to survive through brutality and cannibalism.

Géricault's painting captures a moment of hope, the wrought bodies of men rising towards a peak, up towards the sky above, with cloth of red and white, possibly symbolising both blood and surrender. One could also see the representation of red and white as derivative of the French flag, of égalité (equality: white) and fraternité (brotherhood: red). The blue in the painting, as pale and murky as it is, is the sea, and with this as a representation of liberté (freedom: blue), there emerges irony as the sea is death, is the antithesis of how freedom is so often considered to manifest. The greatest irony that emerges from colour is then that brotherhood and equality are represented in this painting, but they are only present because the sailors are about to die - because they are not free.

Though there is hope in the ascending lines of this painting, the composition is crowded and confined; where and who the sailors wave to, we do not necessarily know. (There is a faint silhouette of a ship on the horizon, but this is supposed to have turned away from the raft). Following, not the almost misleading line of hope towards the flags, instead, watching where the light is spilled across the painting, we have to read it from the top right corner, downwards.

As our eyes descend the mass of bodies, we move away from hope, down to faces of desperation and delusion, down to pure agony, down to loss, down to abjection, and then finally down to death. And as we go, the light grows stronger, and so it becomes clear that Géricault wants us to focus on the tragedy at the bottom of the heap; the clouds above the flags of hope and desperation signal all too clearly the lack of hope and darkness that awaits even those who may escape this raft.

The most striking element of this painting to my eye is the separated group of five men, two alive, three dead, at the bottom of the painting.

The central figure here is the only live character who does not face the flag, who does not reach out for hope. He is highlighted by his red cloth, which rests under the dead body in his lap, appearing to be a pool of blood. Furthermore, he is centralised by the darker-skinned sailor to his side and the shadowy deranged figure behind him. It is fascinating that this abject man is shown to be the eldest and the only one who is thinking - all else are in a frenzy. This man clings to a dead body where everyone else tries to escape them - a dead body that is so haunting for the fact that Géricault spent time studying corpses to give this painting a realistic base that could be dramaticised by his exuberant chiaroscuro. This man seemingly symbolises the consciousness of this crew, embodying the wise old man archetype, but manifesting without answers, with nothing to say, hiding from possible (even lost) hope on the horizon under a symbol of blood and ironic brotherhood rather than using the tragedy to call for help.

It is in this man that there appears to be the most devastating commentary provided by Géricault. In telling the true story of the shipwreck, he highlights the folly of the leadership and navy of France, presenting something antithetical and uncomplimentary to nationalist and patriotic sentiments that so often were presented by French paintings of the time and that motivated colonialist endeavours. As a slight side-note, it is worth mentioning that, in the modern day, when one sees a painting like this, it initially appears as similar to iconic symbols of patriotism, such as the picture of an American flag being raised on Iwo Jima:

One may also see similar lines of ascension highlighted to conjure a positive sense patriotism in Eugène Delacroix's 1830 Liberty Leading the People:

In complete opposition to these images, Géricault's depiction of tragedy that is the result of patriotism uses irony with its choice of figures, putting a black man at the very pinnacle of the mass of hope and despair. Remembering that this depicts a raft from a ship sailing to colonise an African country, this man wants to return to France, to his home, to life. However, the old French man at the bottom of the painting has turned away from home and hope.


The ironic statement made with this is what lies at the heart of Géricault's stylistic approach and choice of subject. Both the style and the subject matter juxtapose romance and patriotism with brutality and tragedy; the eye is drawn to death through the beauty of chiaroscuro, drawn to tragedy through the hopeful composition. And as a result of this, the emotions and the mind are drawn to the darker side of what was modern French society through a depiction of suffering, which in Christian paintings is always given meaning, that is ultimately meaningless.

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