Théodore Géricault took for this contemporary subject the tragedy of the survivors of the French ship Medusa. It had foundered off the west coast of Africa in the summer 1816, laden with Algerian immigrants. One hundred and fifty French castaways, abandoned at sea with barely any water and no food began killing off each other and eating the flesh of the dead. The tragedy was the product of terrible mismanagement and resulted in scandalous public scorn of the French government. The politicos construed Géricault's presentation of the horrific event as an outright attack on the government. The artist avoided showing the most terrible aspects of the ordeal-- murder, cannibalism, and the overwhelming hardship--in opting to depict the dramatic moment when the castaways are flailing frenziedly to catch the attention of a distant ship that was to eventually rescue them. Various corpses and a mere fifteen survivors are heaped onto one another any which way--despair, suffering, and death (recalling Antoine Jean Gros' Pest House), and are arranged in a X-shaped composition.
"One light filled diagonal axis stretches from bodies at the lower left up to the figure of the black man, raised on the shoulders of his comrades and waving a piece of cloth toward the horizon. The cross-axis descends from the storm clouds and dark, wind-filled sail at the upper left to the shadowed upper torso of the body trailing in the open sea."
Out of love or guilt or madness of idealism, to paint this subject, Géricault locked himself in a room full of amputated limbs and severed heads for seven months. The value Géricault places on telling the truth in his Raft of the Medusa (1819) is evidenced by the fact thatover a period of three years he carried out volumes research and completed several preliminary studies for his piece, even going so far as to interview those who had withstood the shipwreck.
Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)
De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.