“The Raft of the Medusa”

Theodore Gericault, “The Raft of Medusa” 1818-19. Oil on canvas.

There are few better examples of technical mastery than Gericault’s tale of the poor shipwrecked souls of the French Naval Ship, The Medusa. Imagine an artist today creating a HUGE scene of the BP oil spills from a few years back – quite controversial right? But Gericault new that painting a scene of contemporary history could launch his career. Only 15 people survived the shipwreck and raft ordeal (of the original 147 that began on the raft!) Starvation, madness, even cannibalism are parts of this horrific tale of survival. What makes this work such a masterpiece is Gericault’s ability to create the most balanced and intentional moment of chaos. Your eye sweeps up from the naked body of a dying man in the lower left to the slave, waiving a flag in desperation to the tiny speck of an English ship in the distance. This use of implied line further creates two pyramid shapes – one of the writhing figures on the right, and the other the rigging and sail to the left. Notice also that even though the men look to the right, the sail of the raft carries them away from salvation. It takes an expert to capture a moment that feels so well structured and yet might be ripped apart at the seems at any moment! This is grandiose “photojournalism” before there ever was such a thing! (Original post to Instagram November 10, 2012.)


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