The Raft of the Medusa is an epic romantic masterpiece painted by Theodore Gericault in 1819. It depicts the survivors of a shipwreck cast adrift in a turbulent sea. They are insane, dying, or both.
The tragic scenario was based on a true story that had scandalised the world a few years before. In 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast, and 146 people were piled onto a makeshift raft, with the remaining passengers and crew on lifeboats that attempted to tow it. The raft was accidentally set loose from the boats, and when it was discovered 13 days later there were only 15 survivors on the drastically reduced vessel depicted in the painting. They had resorted to murder and cannibalism in order to survive.
Like much of France, Gericault was fascinated by the scandal, and sensed an opportunity to make a name for himself. He also knew that to succeed he would have to produce something as big and visceral as the subject matter. It took him a year and a half, working obsessively in monastic conditions, on a grand canvas measuring 716 x 491 cm.
The final work is breathtaking to behold, the anguished figures truly larger than life-size. When it was unveiled the painting shocked and awed in equal measure, the horror of the subject matter being too recent, raw, brutal and downright disgusting for much of polite Parisian society.
Post-Medusa, Theodore’s work mainly comprised portraits and horse paintings. As technically adept as they are, nothing comes close to capturing the hellish majesty, narrative depth and emotional power of his masterpiece. He died just five years after its completion, spiralling into depression and insanity, struggling to recover from the mental and physical strain that he put himself through recreating the Medusa.
The Raft of the Medusa was championed by the Louvre in Paris, and still hangs there today. See it for a glimpse into the mouth of madness.