Taking on an epic tale is surely not for the weak of heart. But Théodore Géricault did not flinch in his determination to bring a monumental horror into the public consciousness and in so doing secure himself recognition as a master painter.
At the age of 26 Géricault came across the true account of the shipwreck of the Medusa (apparently in a moment of serendipity) at a time and place where he was also able to gain first hand accounts from two survivors. He soon realised the potential to represent the story and then set about understanding the agony faced on the Raft of the Medusa as it drifted for days without water or hope of rescue. His research for the painting itself extended to obtaining autopsy specimens to accurately represent the grisly extremes of death and cannibalism on the raft.
Fellow artist Eugène Delacroix posed for preparatory drawings and paintings for Géricault’s ambitious painting which was finally rendered directly to the canvas one figure at a time. In his work of 1830, Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix applies a similar composition to the Raft of the Medusa. However, Géricault would have borrowed from numerous classical paintings – including those of maritime dramas. Watson and the Shark by John Copley – painted in 1778 shows a similar pyramidal composition, although the depiction of the dangers at sea were less graphic. (more on this one from mydailyart blog)
The painting of the Raft of the Medusa (or the Machine as it was called) – as vast as the mystery of the shipwreck itself – is the second most viewed painting in the Louvre after the Mona Lisa. More remarkably, the painting was rejected at its first exhibition for purchase for the public collection despite being awarded the gold medal in the Paris Salon. No doubt this was still a very raw piece of recent history and one that the State preferred not to be reminded of.
What led me here was my own study (on a far more modest scale) of the torso, which I’m just tackling many years after seeing Géricault’s mighty painting. The smaller studies by Géricault show the intricate muscle morphology and movement required to convincingly tell the story, but the momentous composition and dedication to the execution of the painting as whole shows a greater dedication to depict the truth in the way the public could barely have imagined.
The final sad truth is that Géricault died a mere six years later of tuberculosis – so the need to paint and to paint with determination is perhaps Géricault’s greatest legacy to we mere mortals who try our hand at ‘art’.
Story of the making of the Film of ‘The Raft of the Medusa’