Le Radeau de la Méduse

The painter of one of the most famous works of the Romantic era, Frenchman Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault was born on September 26, 1791. He abandoned his formal art studies to copy masters at the Louvre for five years. He was also given free rein (pun intended) at the stables of Versailles where he studied horses in movement and at rest.

Natually given to fits of temper, when his painting of a Cavalry man was not well received, Géricault joined the army. After the army, he fled to Italy to escape romantic involvement with his aunt. There, he discovered a new love, Michaelangelo, which inspired Géricault to attempt a new style of painting.

His most famous work, Le Radeau de la Méduse (luh radoh duh lah maydooz), or The Raft of the Medusa, was painted in response to a national scandal. The Méduse was a French ship, whose captain left the passengers and crew to die on a life-raft after the ship had run aground. Of the 147 set adrift, only 15 survived after almost two weeks at sea on the makeshift raft. But they did not escape unscathed, as starvation, dehydration, cannibalism, and insanity had sailed with them. Géricault went to great lengths to get every detail of the story just right, interviewing survivors, building a scale model of the raft and visiting the morgue to make studies of dead flesh.

The painting dramatized a contemporary tragedy and spoke to the eternal theme of man’s struggle against nature. One of his models for the dramatic composition was Eugène Delacroix as a young man. The painting was so famous that Géricault traveled with it to tour England.

Upon his return, Géricault embarked on a very different project – a series of portraits of people tormented by psychiatric maladies. These ten paintings may have been inspired by Géricault’s own fragile mental health and his family history of insanity. That wasn’t what claimed his life, however. He died on January 26, 1824, just five years after the conclusion of his monumental painting, as a result of a series of riding accidents as well as tubercular infection. He was only 32, but his painting is immortalized on a wall of the Louvre where he once copied the masterpieces of others. The first time I saw Le Radeau de la Méduse was in a French Civilization and Culture class in University. It was a post-card sized black-and-white reproduction that still packed quite an emotional punch. When I saw the real thing at the Louvre, with its almost life-sized figures, I was transfixed.


About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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5 Responses to Le Radeau de la Méduse

  1. theinkbrain says:

    Great post – I always feel terrible when I read about tragic genius. I feel torn between my happiness at being able to appreciate their work, which I believe would not have existed but for their unhappy situations, and wishing they had not had to pay such a terrible price. I checked out the link with the ‘disturbing’ paintings – thank you for including it.
    And of course you enjoyed that little pun!
    Off now to find Géricault’s other paintings.

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