The French masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa is an emotionally wrenching painting that depicts a notorious real-life human tragedy: the appalling suffering of people set adrift at sea on a ramshackle raft.
In 1816, a wooden French ship, the Medusa, ran aground and sank 80 km (50 miles) off the coast of Africa. As the 400 panicked passengers and crew scrambled into lifeboats, it became horribly clear that not all people could be accommodated.
Grasping whatever could be useful, a rough raft was quickly lashed together. Soon, 147 wet and frightened people were crammed on the flatbed raft, facing the terrors of the hostile sea. The raft was tied by ropes to a proper lifeboat. But fearing that the unstable raft might drag the lifeboat under, the Medusa’s captain cut the ropes. The people on the raft were abandoned without supplies.
As hunger grew on the raft, people ate leather belts, boots, hats and even their clothes. Their increasingly desperate 13 days adrift saw intensifying madness, brawling, the casting overboard of the weak and finally cannibalism. When the raft was eventually found, there were only 15 survivors – and five of those soon died.
The art of desperation
News of the tragedy caused uproar in France, with profound questions being posed about the nature of civilization itself. In Paris at the time, a 27-year-old artist named Theodore Gericault was enthralled by the story and keen to build his reputation as a painter.
Gericault spoke with some of the survivors in hospitals, visited morgues to see the skin colouring of people who had starved or drowned and purchased body parts to observe the effects of decomposition. He even had a team of carpenters build a near-size replica of the raft in his studio.
Gericault’s compositional skill, his obsession with artistic accuracy and his sense of emotional tension drove him to create a painting that was shockingly explicit. The suffering mass of doomed humanity writhes before our eyes. We are irresistibly drawn into the suffering of these deathly pale and emaciated souls. At the top right of the picture there is a depiction of desperate hope, which is intensified by our knowledge that such hope was very largely in vain. We know that these people were abandoned to their fate by the deliberate acts of other people.
If we look carefully, we can see that in technical terms Gericault has used a strong diagonal line that draws the viewer’s eye from the bottom left corner of the canvas to the to that intense drama of hope at the top right. Among other things, several outstretched arms and hands point in that direction, sending us into speculation about what can be seen on the horizon by those on the raft – but remaining beyond our view.
Having the massive dimensions of 4.91 metres (16 ft 1in) by 7.16 metres (23 ft 6 in), the large-scale painting dragged the first, horrified viewers at the Paris Salon of 1819 into the whole despairing experience. And the painting still does so today, dominating a wall of the Louvre Museum in Paris. It’s unmissable and unforgettable.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…