Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Narrative Art, Part Two: "The Raft of the Medusa"

"The Raft of the Medusa" by Theodore Gericault. Photo from Wikipedia. One of my favorite paintings, hanging at the Louve.

First, a little background: in 1816 the French frigate Medusa ran aground off the coast of what is now Mauritania. The lifeboats could not carry everyone, so 147 passengers and crew were left to drift on a hastily constructed liferaft, which they endured for 13 days, suffering terrible hardships. Only 15 of the 147 survived the ordeal. The incident became an international scandal.

Gericault was a young painter (he was only 27 when he painted this) and the story of the tragedy fascinated him. He created this large, non-commissioned work by doing a lot of intense research, including interviewing two of the survivors, and went to morgues to learn about how he could best depict dead flesh. This painting caused an immediate sensation and helped launch his too-brief career.  Gericault died young at 32 but his reputation far outlasted him and he became one of the leading lights of French Romanticism.

Gericault went through many preparatory oil sketches in the design of this massive painting, as you can imagine - he wanted to get the design right and spent much time in the planning stages of this piece. But after he decided on a composition, he seems to have painted directly on the canvas without preparatory sketches:

[GĂ©ricault's method] astonished me as much as his intense industry. He painted directly on the white canvas, without rough sketch or any preparation of any sort, except for the firmly traced contours, and yet the solidity of the work was none the worse for it. I was struck by the keen attention with which he examined the model before touching brush to canvas. He seemed to proceed slowly, when in reality he executed very rapidly, placing one touch after the other in its place, rarely having to go over his work more than once. There was very little perceptible movement of his body or arms. His expression was perfectly calm ... 
Quote from Wikipedia.

One of the problems with this painting, by the way, is that Gericault used bitumen as one of his colors, which degrades over time to a kind of treacle, eventually destroying much of the painting. I've also heard that there is a problem with Gericault's white in this piece.

I'm including this painting in my narrative art series for many reasons, but first I want to point out that it segues from what I was talking about the other day. It's an example of changing the viewer's perspective to maximize impact for narrative purposes. When I talk about the viewer's perspective, I mean that this scene is painted as if the artist were standing on a boat just a little to the back and off to the right of the raft. This is not quite a bird's eye view, but it is a broad, omniscient view, and it might be interesting to contemplate how the artist could have swiveled this around a bit to portray this scene while facing the waving figure, for example, or perhaps a dying-person point of view from the raft. Both options would have changed the way we interpret this piece, though possibly in a subtle and hard to describe way. The way it is depicted here seems as if Gericault is not only making a statement about the horrors of this incident and the dramatic rescue of the few survivors, but that he is also making a statement about the perennial hope of mankind for some kind of rescue. You don't have to know a thing about the historical background of this massive work to be moved by it. It has a broader and more universal appeal.

I think that this painting also shows an internal, left to right sequencing, from the death and desolation on the left, through life and hope climaxing at the the top of the composition as the crewman frantically waves to the passing ship for help.

Gericault spent 18 months on this painting, working intensely. It obviously took over his life for a while, as you can imagine working on a painting this size (193.3 in. x 282.3 in., or, 16 feet x 23.5 feet). He was consumed by this painting. Gericault is one of my heros.

If you get to the Louve, there is a big bench in front of this painting where you can sit and gaze up at it, imagining yourself part of the raft, or maybe you can imagine yourself becoming Gericault for a time, trying to get this all down on this massive canvas.


Alexandra Tyng said...

Thank you for your discussion of this fascinating painting. Thee is a lot to think about here for artists designing multi-figure compositions. The point of view is an important consideration.

Linda Tracey Brandon said...

Hi Alex, yes that's true - it's interesting to consider what other vantages were available.

It's a humbling and emotional experience to be in front of this painting.