The Raft of the Medusa


The Raft of the Medusa is a painting produced by Jean Louis Théodore Géricault in 1818-9 and is located in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.


This oil painting on canvas tells the story of the sinking of the Medusa and the subsequent struggle of its survivors. The Méduse (Medusa) was a French Naval frigate which was leading a small convoy of ships in the retrieval of French Senegal from the British. The inexperience of the captain led the Medusa to stray one hundred miles off course and wreck upon a sand bank off the coast of Africa. The call to abandon ship was not given until three days after the wreck. The ship only had the facilities to carry two hundred and fifty passengers off the ship in lifeboats. The remaining one hundred and forty nine passengers were to board a makeshift raft. This raft was supposed to be towed by the other lifeboats but it was left adrift. With no supplies the majority of the passengers on the raft died or were killed. After almost two weeks at sea, the raft was intercepted by the Argus (a ship from the same company). However, only thirteen passengers survived.

Géricault had spent over a year making preparatory drawings and researching the event. He spoke with survivors, hired a carpenter to construct props, studied cadavers and sickly bodies, and studied other depictions of the events. Géricault chose to depict the moment the raft spot an Argus rescue boat. Interestingly, Géricault makes the rescue boat a minuscule detail on the horizon and makes the plight of the raft the focus of the painting. Hence, the painting is colossal (16’ x 23’) and shows the figures as life sized. The figures are not shown as starving and emaciated but rather akin to the heroes of classical sculpture, nude and of prime physique. Géricault was inspired by Michelangelo, in the depiction of the figures, and by Alberti in the arrangement of the composition.

Did you know?

One of the sickly bodies Géricault studied was that of the painter Eugene Delacroix who was suffering from jaundice at the time. Delacroix’s body is seen in the centre of the composition in the figure lying face down and arms spread out. Géricault’s painting may have had a lasting effect on Delacroix as his future work, for example ‘Liberty Leading the People (28th July 1830)’, would reference the composition and tone of the Raft of the Medusa.

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