|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.