The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault

Publié le 18 March 2023
The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault

Théodore Géricault, the famous French painter of the 19th century, is today considered one of the greatest artists of the Romantic movement. Known for his masterpieces of historical scenes, at sea or depicting moments of daily life, he was responsible for the creation of the famous Raft of the Medusa.

The world-famous Raft of the Medusa is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It has become a truly emblematic work of history.

The true story :

This painting is a perfect example of a news story. It tells the sad story of a tragic event:

On 2 July 1816, the French frigate Medusa set sail for Senegal. The objective of this voyage was simple: to recover the trading posts. However, after a bad decision by the commander on board, the Medusa ship ran aground near the coast of Mauritania.

Afterwards, the survivors of the shipwreck were forced to find ways to survive. They built a makeshift raft to get by. They were left adrift for almost 13 days without food or water before being rescued. In total, around 150 people took refuge on the raft. However, the weight on the raft was too great. The number of people on the boat was too high and the crossing did not go as planned. In total, there were only 15 survivors on board. 5 of them died of exhaustion as soon as they reached Saint-Louis.

Géricault's masterpiece:

First of all, to put this story together, Théodore Géricault interviewed the survivors of the ship. He thus obtained very precise information about the event. To create this monumental work, he went to the morgue to study the paleness of the bodies and flesh. He studied the faces of dying patients, borrowed severed limbs and a head from a mental asylum. His aim was to get as close to reality as possible.

In this painting we can see Jean Charles, a black soldier, embodied as the only hope in the painting. He is holding the hand of another white soldier. The artist's humanistic and political choice to symbolise the brotherhood of these two men through this simple gesture caused a real scandal when the work was received.

In addition, Géricault asked one of his friends and artists, Eugène Delacroix, to participate in the creation of his masterpiece. Delacroix served as a model for the figure in the foreground. This is the young man in the centre of the painting lying on his stomach.

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All the information in this article is taken from the episode of My Little Museum, available in French on our streaming platform.