Le Radeau de la Méduse – Théodore Géricault



© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

For this post, I chose to write about the French 19th century. It is an important century for history and art history. Paris was the center of the art scene, which was in constant evolution between Classical style, Romanticism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and more. There was an evolution in politics as well. The French Revolution, ending the Monarchy, had recently happened. France became an Empire twice and a Republic three times in just a century. And in this overwhelming century I had to choose one artwork for today. Since I know this won’t be the last one for 19th century, I chose Le Radeau de la Méduse by Géricault (1791-1824).

Théodore Géricault went often to the Louvre to draw the artwork he could observe. He also observed the famous and important Borghese Collection, which arrived in the Louvre in 1808 and gave more models for  artists. However, Géricault was banished for life from the Louvre in 1810 because he got into a fight in the Grande Galerie. In 1816, he left for Italy, where he discovered Michelangelo and Raphael. A year later, he came back to France where he denounced the literary Romanticism. He looked to contemporary facts for his inspiration.

Le Radeau de la Méduse was painted in 1818-1819 and it is now in the Louvre. This painting was based on a true story. A boat left for Senegal in 1816 and the command was given to an old man from the Ancien Régime (monarchic system before 1789) who hadn’t sailed for a long time. He wasn’t equal to the task and the boat sunk. The men on board created a raft for 150 people while waiting to be saved. They had to wait 13 days and only 10 men made survived because of the wreck, fights and cannibalism. Two of the ten sailors told their story to newspapers and Géricault was inspired.

In this painting, Géricault wanted to show the false hope before the rescue. The boat sent to save the men appears in the horizon, but then leaves without seeing them. The pyramidal composition highlights this hope. The ascending movement towards the right dominates the painting with a black man as a figurehead for the raft. This man allows the painter to remind the viewers the reality of black people in the French society (Napoleon abolished slavery). This man has his back turned and has no face because Géricault refuses any identification or the status of individual hero. The painter gives us a synthesis of humanity left alone. He shows the barbarity inside the human kind. The dead bodies on the foreground are repoussoir devices (element used to direct the viewer’s eye back into the composition). Géricault uses the same chiaroscuro as Caravaggio. The crossed lines emphasize the dramatization and the pale light amplifies the pathetic feeling. On the left foreground, we can see an old man on his dead son’s body, once again to reinforce the drama. You can see three different stages: the dead, the dying and the survivors. His human figures are realistic because he worked with models. Notice the man in the foreground, in the middle? This man with a muscular back hanging on a beam is the famous painter Eugène Delacroix.

This painting was the star of the 1819’s Salon but the critics didn’t agree about it since it departed from the ideal of beauty. It tries something new. A famous art historian, Michelet, said of this painting: “It is all our society which goes on this raft“. This painting opens Dark Romanticism.


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