Romanticism and ‘The Raft of the Medusa’.


The Romantic Revival of the early 19th century was an international phenomenon and affected all arts alike. As a movement in the arts it lasted from the late 18th century to the early 19th century. Romanticism inspired the revival of Gothic style architecture and in literature the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron’s poetry, and the music of Schumann. It has been said that Romanticism lent itself more to literary and musical expression rather than through the visual arts.

By 1830  in France the Romantic movement in painting was rapidly displacing that of the Neoclassical movement. Romanticism was in effect in complete opposition to classicism. The Neo-classicists, the champions of David’s heritage, claimed to defend order and accused the Romantics of being revolutionaries and having introduced anarchy into art. An example being Ingres, a Neo-classicist becoming an unswerving adversary of the Romantic Eugene Delacroix. However, Romanticism came to prevail everywhere in the atmosphere of the time, especially as an inspiration of liberty, poetry, and lyricism.

It is difficult to singularly define Romanticism because of its varied manifestations – it is a movement not a style. Romantic artists attempted to transfer their personality, their most intimate emotional and secret aspects to their work. For Romanticism the main basis of their art was the belief in the value of individual experience. Romanticism came therefore to represent an attitude of mind. French artists were the first to give expression to Romanticism in painting. The most conspicuous was Eugene Delacroix, considered the master of the movement, so little did his work conform to the classical traditions in both content and theme. Delacroix’s work cab be seen as a comment on the passions that characterise humanity in its life struggles. In Delacroix’s work can be seen the sense of the infinite and the transcendental, and Romanticism’s insistence on the primary role played by imagination in artistic expression.

As an example of a powerful Romantic work one can consider the Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault, who had the makings of a truly great artist. Gericault took the classicism of David and infused it with passion and life. The Raft of the Medusa was at the same time romantic and realist and one of the finest paintings of the first half of the 19th century. The picture dealt with a contemporary event, the  circumstances of which shocked France, and is strained and yet intense in its emotional power. The Medusa was a French frigate wrecked in 1816 on the Arguin Banks, off Cape Blanco, Senegal. In order to escape the stricken vessel the ship’s boats were launched but were not enough to take everybody aboard. A raft was constructed and set in the sea. The raft was below the waves with the weight of the first 50 aboard. Eventually an estimated 149 persons, both men and women, were on the raft which had sunk so low that they were up to their waists in the sea. After severe and horrific privations and even cannibalism, the few remaining survivors were rescued. The horrendous episode became the theme of Gericault’s masterpiece. he began work in 1818.

Gericault consulted two raft survivors, authors of a book about the raft episode. These were J. B. Henry Savigny (the junior surgeon) and Alexander Correard (a geographical engineer). Then he got the ship’s carpenter of the Medusa to make him a plan of the raft and then a scale model. Gericault visited hospitals to study the sick, the dying, and the dead. He borrowed severed limbs of corpses, sometimes complete cadavers, and took them to his studio for drawing. He surrounded himself with all that would impress upon him the experience of the raft. The preliminary stages took him ten months. The painting of the canvas took eight months. The castaways were panted from models – some professional, some were friends, and Savigny and Correard posed as themselves.

The picture received severe criticisms on exhibition. But, much praise also, and many with mixed feelings. Louis XVIII viewed the canvas and spoke pleasantly to Gericault, his comments now conceived as meaning that Gericault had painted a picture that compelled the viewer to share an experience not to his liking. Gericault had thus evoked the romantic spirit in terms of experience, an empirical sharing in contrast to the rationalism of the previous century’s enlightenment.

Gericault died aged thirty three in 1824. He never really recovered from the despair generated by the exhausting eighteen months work on the Raft of the Medusa. The picture personified despair and suffering. On his death the king bought the picture for the nation. The Raft of the Medusa proved to be a key work in the history of art. It ended one tradition and began another. Everything about the work, its history, its sketches, its final form, are important. Despite Gericault’s frustration at living so short a life, and not having produced many works, the painting shows that not only would he have been capable of the highest achievements, but his Raft has a chilling relevance for today.

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