In early nineteenth century France, the arts were controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts). Very much a conservative organization, the Académie was strict in who was allowed to be a member and what kind of art was allowed to be exhibited in their Salons. Women were not allowed to be members and most of the male members were past middle age which caused tension and dissatisfaction among young artists in France. Very set in their ways and traditions, change did not come easy to the Académie as they rejected anything that wasn’t classical in style or morally uplifting in subject matter. However, young artists like Théodore Géricault began to change the typical history painting supported by the Académie by adding in elements of Romanticism and the sublime. Called into action by a French writer, Henri Beyle (who went under the pen name Stendhal), young French artists began to produce paintings that expressed human emotion and was engaged with the present time. Instead of representing the naked body of a hero that existed long ago, Stendhal wanted art that had a soul and would appeal to a variety of people. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa was one such painting that brought the emotion and feeling from a contemporary event together with the classical qualities of an Académie-approved history painting.
The Raft of the Medusa was based off a shipwreck that happened in 1816 when the frigate, Medusa, ran ashore off the west coast of Africa. Carrying four hundred colonists and soldiers, there were only enough lifeboats for about half of the passengers. A raft was assembled from the ship’s wood to hold low-ranking soldiers and colonists, but the raft was so overloaded that most of it was submerged under water. Abandoned by the rest of the passengers, only fifteen passengers survived aboard the make-shift raft, causing a huge scandal to erupt in France as it became clear that the tragedy had occurred because of an incompetent and unskilled captain. For a country that was unhappy with competency of their leaders, the Bourbons, The Raft of the Medusa became the symbol for a country drifting and lost for lack of an experienced leader. This contemporary, un-heroic event involving common people- soldiers, sailors, and farmers- as the subject of a massive painting was groundbreaking, as other monumental history paintings were of heroic people and events from the past.
Géricault focused the painting on the moment when the fifteen survivors saw their rescue ship. Their makeshift raft fills up much of the picture plane, broken, battered, and at the mercy of the waves. Some men enthusiastically wave down the rescue ship while others cannot move due to weakness. Despite this incident being a current event, the painting is centered on the male nude, a characteristic of Classical art. Their bodies are naked or half-clothed calling upon the classical tradition of displaying the perfection of the human figure and displaying that figure in different poses. Starting in the lower left with the dead son being mourned by his father, the bodies move in a diagonal upward sweep that ends with the slave, waving down the rescue ship. This diagonal line represents the moral recovery from hopelessness to optimism experienced by the soldiers of the Medusa. The nude bodies also represent allegorical or mythological figures found in Neoclassical works, but the intrusion of contemporary elements like the cotton socks upon the feet of the dead son and the sailor pants upon the father dissuades the viewer from seeing these bodies as allegories or mythological figures, allowing Géricault to accomplish his goal of injecting Romantic elements into a Neoclassical painting and elevating a contemporary subject to that of a history painting.