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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Painting of the Month (41) January 2014: Gericault

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault 1791-1824
(Completed 1819, oil on canvas, approx 16 x 23 feet) 

This painting is possibly more interesting for it's non-art elements than for the art work itself. In 1818 Théodore Géricault was a young man trying to build an artistic reputation but the innovation of this work is that it depicted a recent, true event.

'History painting' is a genre in art that was dominant from the sixteenth century. It was intended to have moral or didactic overtones and usually depicted stories from the Bible, mythology or literature. It was only history in the sense of having a story or narrative and usually depicts a certain single point from that narrative. These paintings were often very large and this one is on a larger-than-life scale. It was viewed as the most important genre at that time and seen as the pinnacle of an artist's career.

In 1816 the French frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of Senegal. The story that followed was one of 15 survivors left on a hurriedly constructed raft after 13 days at sea experiencing starvation, dehydration and....cannibalism. There was political outrage because an inexperienced captain had been appointed through his good connections rather than his skill.

Géricault had conducted extensive research before starting to paint and had visited morgues to get the decaying flesh tones right. His scheme worked and the controversial first showing of this painting in Paris catapulted him to fame and it was soon shown in London with similar success. It greatly divided the critics some of whom did not want to be 'repelled' by a 'heap of bodies' and thought that this could not be art.

On the other hand he was praised (by others) for showing a negro at the focal point of the picture. The triangular composition raising upwards to the right indicating the hopes of the survivors as a distant ship is seen on the horizon. The ship didn't see them and passed by. I think I can just make out a tiny point on the horizon. Earlier studies for the painting do clearly show a large vessel .
There were ten survivors from the Méduse. Géricault died five years later at the young age of 32. His painting lives on as an icon of French Romanticism. 
You can just about see the ship on the horizon in this detail.


All Consuming said...

An excellent painting indeed, and a finely constructed post too. I was instantly taken back to Julian Barnes' tome -'A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters' in which one chapter is dedicated to a fictional re-enactment between the people on the raft. Tis we'll worth a read, as I recall the book even had a pull out picture of the painting! Check it out :)

bazza said...

Do you know what AC? - I read that book about 15 years ago. I had completely forgotten about that chapter. Doh!
(PS. I feel like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. I've done that little cleaning job. Savvy?)

Anonymous said...

Hot from the desk of the appalling, yet fabulous, Sir Tom Eagerly:
Well Bazza, if those Frenchies are happy enough to eat horsemeat, I don't suppose a little cannibalism would put them off. Must go now - I'm having an old friend for supper.
Cheers old boy!

bazza said...

Excuse me Sir Tom,I'm feeling slightly queasy.....
Perhaps you should have a little Chianti to wash your friend down with.

Sherry Ellis said...

I enjoyed reading your explanation of the painting as much as viewing the painting itself. It's too bad the artist died at such a young age!

bazza said...

Hi Sherry. It's not the kind of picture that one would want covering a whole wall at home is it? I suppose that the artist has to die young to make it truly romantic!

Splasher said...

Nice piece Barry, you should be an art critic or at least a tutor of fine art.

bazza said...

Splasher: You are too kind!

All Consuming said...

I went to see the Grayson Perry exhibition in Manchester today. The colours! It was stunning, I'll be doing a post about it soon :D

bazza said...

Excellent. I will look forward to that post.
Grayson Perry should be more appreciated as an artist but, hey, that's showbiz!

klahanie said...

Hey bazza,

Another fascinating article to go along with a fascinating painting. Not something I would hang on my wall, but I do appreciate it and the story behind the painting.


bazza said...

It's certainly not pretty Gary but, like so many other things in the Arts, a little background knowledge does illuminate the subject.
Thanks for visiting- have a great weekend!

Carol Z said...

I've always liked this painting, despite the grim subject. Enjoyed your comments.

bazza said...

Hello Carol. I'm sure if I can say I 'like' this painting but I do find it fascinating and extremely interesting. Thanks for stopping by!