Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Goya’s Third of May

Read about Théodore Géricault in the March 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, where Jerry N. Weiss writes about The Artist’s Left Hand, which Géricault was driven to record while on his deathbed. The following is an excerpt from the article.

I’m waiting for Hollywood to make a movie about Théodore Géricault, the progenitor of French Romanticism. A man subject to deep bouts of depression, Géricault was by turns manically creative and recklessly self-destructive. In his mid-20s, he ended a romance with his married aunt, who bore him an illegitimate child, and fled to Italy. Inflamed by the work of Michelangelo, he returned home and made studies for The Raft of the Medusa, an immense canvas that depicted human suffering in the aftermath of a shipwreck; the shipwreck was a national scandal, and The Raft was a masterpiece. It revealed his flair for high drama, as well as the attribute of social consciousness—in one fell swoop, he transformed the convention of history painting into a vehicle for conscientious outrage (painted several years earlier, Goya’s The Third of May ought to have the honor but was probably not exhibited publicly until the mid-1800s). In every sense of the word, The Raft was one of the most sensational paintings of the 19th century.—Jerry N. Weiss

The Artist's Left Hand drawing by Theodore Gericault

The Artist’s Left Hand (1824, watercolor, with black and red chalk, 9×113⁄5) by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Musée du Louvre, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY; Photography by Michèle Bellot

Raft of the Medusa painting by Théodore Géricault, portrait/figure

The Raft of the Medusa (ca 1819; oil, 193×282) by Théodore Géricault. Erich Lessing; Courtesy of Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers

Gericault’s ambitious, early work (he was 27) is a vast, Romantic account of what happened after the French naval frigate Meduse foundered off the coast of Mauritania on July 5, 1816. Those on board created a makeshift raft; of the 147 people who embarked on the journey, only 15 survived during 13 days at sea. To research this catastrophic event, during which men resorted to cannibalism, Gericault interviewed survivors and made sketches at a morgue. From the moment it was first exhibited in the Salon, Le Radeau de la Meduse caused controversy, as the tragedy was blamed on the incompetence of the ship’s captain, who had been newly appointed by the restored French monarch, Louis XVIII.

See Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May 1808), (oil, 106×137) at the Museo del Prado, Madrid

Goya’s Third of May is “the first great picture that can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word—in style, in subject, and in intention,” according to Kenneth Clark. Goya’s picture documents the tragic execution of Spanish laborers, rounded up a day after a rebellion of Spaniards against the Napoleon’s invading army.

Click here to get your copy of the March 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine and read more about Géricault’s work.

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