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Theodore Gericault's greatest legacy as an artist is undoubtedly his Raft of the Medusa, completed in 1819. The painting is the comprehensive result of experiments with a variety of forms and styles; it marks the apogee of Gericault's career. Beautiful and horrible, incidental and ubiquitous, monumental without a specific hero, The Raft of the Medusa was to the Salon of 1819 a complete paradox. The painting's first critics were divided in their assessments by their political and artistic ideologies.
Some critics at the painting's initial exposition desired a picture more blatant in social criticism while others felt that the painting derided the very patriotism they felt needed protection. Artistically too Gericault's masterwork was found to be an enigma. He followed no artistic school coherently and attempted a fusion of sorts that was unprecedented in his day. While such efforts did not popularize him with his Romantic contemporaries, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa markedly began a new epoch in the evolution of art, that of innovation. Through his unique amalgamation of subject matter, contradictory styles, and the universality of his theme Gericault has produced in The Raft of the Medusa an integral part of art history. Though initially Gericault may have been enticed by the political controversy of his subject, the theme of the painting did not equate that theme a polemicist would have chosen (Eitner 52).
The painting depicts the actual tragedy of the French frigate, the Medusa, which three years earlier had foundered off the west coast of Africa. One hundred and fifty of the men on the ship had been forced to board an inadequate makeshift raft and were abandoned. For over two weeks the men were at sea. There they faced inclement weather, mutinous occurrences, the effects of starvation, and cannibalism. Of the one hundred and fifty, only fifteen would survive the ordeal. The political implications were that the ship's Captain should not have been chosen for such a demanding job; the lack of merit had resulted in the ship's tragic fate.
Edward Lucie-Smith refers to the painting as "a savage criticism of the corruption and sloth of the Restoration government. " While such appraisal mirrors the original criticism royalists conferred upon the picture, it does not account for The Raft of the Medusa's evolution of subjects that Lorenz Eitner reports Gericault discarded before finally settling on what was the least offensive, The sighting of the Argus (23). The fact that Gericault sought a government prize for the Medusa also suggests that he did not anticipate any governmental opposition from its officials or staunch supporters (Eitner 53). It is ironic to note that the social critics of his day chastised The Raft of the Medusa for not being directly critical enough. In avoiding the signs and slogans of his day, Gericault obscured the polemic point of the painting (Eitner 52). Such debate over the ambiguity of messages in political intent correlated to the similar arguments concerning Gericault's influences in the painting of The Raft of the Medusa. Here Gericault notably deviated from the conventional styles extant and, in doing so, emerged with a style uniquely his own.
Gericault's interest in the grand works of Michaelangelo appears to have most significantly affected the scale with which he worked (The Raft of the Medusa). The size of the picture is that of real life, a scale reserved not for newspaper reports but for "general interest such as a national celebration, a great victory, or one of those instances of sublime self-sacrifice that are the glory of religion and patriotism" (Eitner 51). The structure of the men on the raft is not shaped traditionally so that there is a central figure in the painting; rather there exist two: the Negro waving the flag and the mast of the raft. Such complexity of structure may be accredited to the Romantics, with Delacroix, Goya, and Turner, among others discarding the past insistence upon subscription to formulaic structure. The influence of color can be found in Carravagio's school of painting. The somber, monochrome, and earthen shades add to the Baroque dramatic realism that Gericault enjoyed.
Gericault had visited the painting styles of Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, the Baroque, and the Renaissance. He saw things that he appreciated and things that he did not. Of the former lot he took the clarity, the realism, the grandeur, the focus on the contemporary and the dramatic and gave them a personal spin (Eitner 54). Of the latter Gericault discarded the stilted artifice of over stylized art, the tendency towards triviality that Romantic art possessed. What he was left with, the qualities that the painting itself embodies, can be explicated as a monumental depiction of a contemporary occurrence that intimate a universal experience in the painting's theme, suffering. Gericault initially began his work in the manner that a reporter might seek out a story.
That is he sought nothing but the cold hard facts. The Raft of the Medusa was originally intended to convey nothing but visual truth (Eitner 55). However when faced with such facts his initial intent was subordinate to the stronger desire to evoke a greater truth. The greater truth was a facet of humanity that is inherent in every generation, an aspect that arouses empathy and compassion because all humans have felt a shade of it at one time or another. That truth is suffering.
The Raft of the Medusa's suffering had repercussions that have echoed far longer than that of any political agenda. In summary, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa is an experiment in virtuosity that has yielded far greater results than the artist ever imagined. The unbending adherence to his own theory, theme, and principal has allowed Gericault to secure for himself a place in history that will not easily be forgotten. He abandoned the traditional conventions of his day, the formulaic art of the past, and the prerequisites for subject matter that had previously controlled all artistic endeavors. The result was a masterful composition that reflects not only on the revolutionary mood of Gericault's time but on the transcendental element that pervades time itself.
Bibliography: Eitner, Lorenz. "Gericault's Raft of the Medusa. " 1972, Phaidon.
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