Gericaults Raftas legacy in art and politics




Theodore Gericault\'s greatest legacy as an artist is undoubtedly his Raft of the Medusa, completed in 1819. The painting is the comprehensive result of experiments with a variety of forms and styles; it marks the apogee of Gericault\'s career. Beautiful and horrible, incidental and ubiquitous, monumental without a specific hero, The Raft of the Medusa was to the Salon of 1819 a complete paradox. The painting\'s first critics were divided in their assessments by their political and artistic ideologies. Some critics at the painting\'s initial exposition desired a picture more blatant in social criticism while others felt that the painting derided the very patriotism they felt needed protection. Artistically too Gericault\'s masterwork was found to be an enigma. He followed no artistic school coherently and attempted a fusion of sorts that was unprecedented in his day. While such efforts did not popularize him with his Romantic contemporaries, Gericault\'s Raft of the Medusa markedly began a new epoch in the evolution of art, that of innovation. Through his unique amalgamation of subject matter, contradictory styles, and the universality of his theme Gericault has produced in The Raft of the Medusa an integral part of art history.
Though initially Gericault may have been enticed by the political controversy of his subject, the theme of the painting did not equate that theme a polemicist would have chosen (Eitner 52). The painting depicts the actual tragedy of the French frigate, the Medusa, which three years earlier had foundered off the west coast of Africa. One hundred and fifty of the men on the ship had been forced to board an inadequate makeshift raft and were abandoned. For over two weeks the men were at sea. There they faced inclement weather, mutinous occurrences, the effects of starvation, and cannibalism. Of the one hundred and fifty, only fifteen would survive the ordeal. The political implications were that the ship\'s Captain should not have been chosen for such a demanding job; the lack of merit had resulted in the ship\'s tragic fate. Edward Lucie-Smith refers to the painting as "a savage criticism of the corruption and sloth of the Restoration government." While such appraisal mirrors the original criticism royalists conferred upon the picture, it does not account for The Raft of the Medusa\'s evolution of subjects that Lorenz Eitner reports Gericault discarded before finally settling on what was the least offensive, The sighting of the Argus (23). The fact that Gericault sought a government prize for the Medusa also suggests that he did not anticipate any governmental opposition from its officials or staunch supporters (Eitner 53). It is ironic to note that the social critics of his day chastised The Raft of the Medusa for not being directly critical enough. In avoiding the signs and slogans of his day, Gericault obscured the polemic point of the painting (Eitner 52).
Such debate over the ambiguity of messages in political intent correlated to the similar arguments concerning Gericault\'s influences in the painting of The Raft of the Medusa. Here Gericault notably deviated from the conventional styles extant and, in doing so, emerged with a style uniquely his own. Gericault\'s interest in the grand works of Michaelangelo appears to have most significantly affected the scale with which he worked (The Raft of the Medusa). The size of the picture is that of real life, a scale reserved not for newspaper reports but for "general interest such as a national celebration, a great victory, or one of those instances of sublime self-sacrifice that are the glory of religion and patriotism" (Eitner 51). The structure of the men on the raft is not shaped traditionally so that there is a central figure in the painting; rather there exist two: the Negro waving the flag and the mast of the raft. Such complexity of structure may be accredited to the Romantics, with Delacroix, Goya, and Turner, among others discarding the past insistence upon subscription to formulaic structure. The influence of color can be found in Carravagio\'s school of painting. The somber, monochrome, and earthen shades add to the Baroque dramatic realism that Gericault enjoyed.
Gericault had visited the painting styles of Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, the Baroque, and the Renaissance. He saw things that he appreciated and things that