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The Custom of The Sea

The Raft Of Medusa is an oil painting of 1818, created by the French painter Théodore Géricault. Completed when the artist was 27, the work has become an icon of French Romanticism, for it seemingly depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today's Mauritania on 2 July 1816. On 5 July 1816, at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration and practiced cannibalism or as it is often crudely put, “The custom of the sea”. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain.

Géricault chose to depict this event in order to launch his career with a large-scale, independent work on a subject that had already generated great public interest. The event fascinated him, and before he began work on the final painting, he undertook extensive research and produced many preparatory sketches. As he had anticipated, the painting proved highly controversial at its first appearance in the 1819 Paris Salon, attracting passionate praise and condemnation in equal measure. However, it established his international reputation and today is widely seen as seminal in the early history of the Romantic movement in French painting.

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The painting is on a monumental scale of 491 cm × 716 cm, so that most of the figures rendered are life-sized and those in the foreground almost twice life-size, pushed close to the picture plane and crowding onto the viewer, who is drawn into the physical action as a participant. The pictorial composition of the painting is constructed upon two pyramidal structures. The perimeter of the large mast on the left of the canvas forms the first. The horizontal grouping of dead and dying figures in the foreground forms the base from which the survivors emerge, surging upward towards the emotional peak, where the central figure waves desperately at a rescue ship.

The makeshift raft is shown as barely seaworthy as it rides the deep waves, while the men are rendered as broken and in utter despair. One old man holds the corpse of his son at his knees, another tears his hair out in frustration and defeat. A number of bodies litter the foreground, waiting to be swept away by the surrounding waves.

The viewer's attention is first drawn to the center of the canvas, then follows the directional flow of the survivors' bodies, viewed from behind and straining to the right. According to the art historian Justin Wintle, "a single horizontal diagonal rhythm leads us from the dead at the bottom left, to the living at the apex." Two other diagonal lines are used to heighten the dramatic tension. One follows the mast and its rigging and leads the viewer's eye towards an approaching wave that threatens to engulf the raft, while the second, composed of reaching figures, leads to the distant silhouette of the Argus, the ship that eventually rescued the survivors.

In hindsight, it is stated that Géricault was very moved by the tragedy, especially because of the political implications of the event. In fact, the captain wasn’t given a severe sentence, like public opinion expected. He was expelled from the Navy and sentenced to three years in prison, but, actually the code provided for the capital punishment for not being the last one to abandon the ship. Therefore, the tragedy of The Raft of the Medusa became a symbol of the oppression inflicted on the weakest and helpless.

Those were the years of the Bourbon Restoration, after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French monarchy.

The Raft of the Medusa is one of the great masterpieces painted by Théodore Géricault. A huge painting which has become the symbols of the struggle of the weakest against privileges, describing an event that really happened and which had aroused French public opinion in the first half of the 19th century.

References :

1. The Art Post Blog (2018, January 22) | The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault where you can admire it.

2. Widewalls (2018, February 13) | Why The Raft of the Medusa is One of the Most Inspirational Works of Art.

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