Painting review : The Raft of the Medusa

In preparation for assignment 4 annotations I have decided to research The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault

Théodore GÉRICAULT (Rouen, 1791 – Paris, 1824)
Le Radeau de la Méduse
Salon de 1819
H. : 4,91 m. ; L. : 7,16 m.
Acquis à la vente posthume de l’artiste par l’intermédiaire de Pierre-JosephDedreux-Dorcy, ami de Géricault, 1824 , 1824
INV. 4884
© Musées du Louve


The picture of it on the Lourve website is pretty small and dark but I was able to see a larger one here where I could zoom in and out of it.

I’ve tried again to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review.

Effects & techniques:

  1. What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? The man on the horizon looking left with his arm outstretched to the right. Then the darker skinned person waving the red cloth, then the rest of the people on the raft.
  2. Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? the sails and the wave behind.
  3. Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? There’s a tiny little ship in the distance (presumably what they are all waving at).
  4. Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The dead at the front of the raft and the waving man at the back.
  5. Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? no.


    1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate with lots of warm colours in it makes it feel realistic but its not at all photographic
    2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? The warm colours of the raft, the sky and the live people contrast with the cold sea and the deatlhy pallor of the dead.
    3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? The palate is mostly warm in the middle where the drama is and cooler around the edges where there is only sea and death.
    4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? Like the Goya 3rd May, here we see again most of the colours are quite dull but the bright red, accents are fresh, dramatic.
    5. In what way is dark and light colour used?

I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? As with the 3rd May, there is a wide range of colour values, the mood is tense. Very tense.

II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest, the people on the top of the raft are dark against the bright horizon, the pale dead bodies in the bottom of the frame are quite braight agains the gloom. the lighting is very dramatic.

III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the bodies, the dramatic lighting and treatment of the people is reminincent of Caravaggio.

IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition.


  1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? Unlike the 3rd May, the oil paint has been carefully applied and blended to be almost classical in style.
  2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? It is the  beautifully blended realism of a history painting despite the subject matter.
  3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? Yes, the heroic history painting, which of course this is not.
  4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? Yes, it is painted on a grand scale in a classical way which is at odds with the subject matter, elevating it.


need this large gap because the table runs into the side of the blog



Representation of depth Technique: 3rd of May Effect: 3rd of May Technique: raft of medusa Effect: raft of medusa
(a) overlapping Y The scene feels 3 dimentional because of the many overlapping layers, the pile of bodies, the people overlapping the man in white on the left, on the right the soldiers overlapping eachother so closely they look to be touching, the overlap the lantern and the crowd and the background hill overlaps the front of the church looming mist in the background Y The bodies in the painting overlap each other so much that you don’t really know where one finishes and the next starts, like a multi-limbed beast of fleshy parts. They overlap the parts of the raft such as the man with his hand draped over the woodern bean in the forground and the people sat in front of the base of the mast. This gives the illusion of depth.
(b) diminishing scale Y the figures of the crowd look smaller than the soldiers and the church is smaller because its further away Y The focus of the painting is concentrated on the small area of the raft so there is not much scope for diminishing scale, until you see the spec of the ship in the disnatnce of the horizon
(c) atmospheric perspective Y The chuch is very misty in the background Y The tiny ship on the horizon is very misty in the distance
(d) vertical placement Y the ground they all stand on is nearer than the church in the background Y The illusion of depth is added too by the forshortned human forms, stacked vertically in the frame so you see the completely cover the raft all the way to the ‘back’ of it where the mast is.
(e) linear perspective Y the soldiers line up as a diagonal going out and back into the frame Y The edge of the raft and the slats in the rafts construction fool your eye with linear perspective.
(f) modelling Y the modelling of the various textures in the scene especially clothes make the illsuion realistic even through when you look closer you can see its not really Y Unlike the 3rd May, the modelling is very detailed in every aspect of the painting from the frothy waves, to the textures of the dead peoples skin, clothes and clouds in the sky, othing is roughed out.

Use of lines:

Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal):  there are strong diagonal lines in the composition. The lines of the raft form a base as an implied diamond shape on which the drama unfolds. This is countered by the mast and rigging. The diagonal sweep of people and limbs stretching from the dead man on the left bottom corner to the waving people in the top right leads your eye across the raft and onto the ship in the distance (which is hard to see at first but then you cannot stop looking at once you see it). This is countered by the lul of the waves next to the raft. The vertical is created by the shear number of people and the forshortening of the people, two main verticals are the mast and the waving people. The horizontals are all formed by nature, the curl of the wave on the left, the horizon and the stormy clouds above.

Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness.  the strong lighting creates deep showy contrasting lines to model the forms, from the soft contours on the muscles and hair of the people to the strong contours in the man made materials such as the barrel and the planks of the raft. The forms are much more realistic that those in the 3rd May, making it much more grusesome to look at the details.

Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’

Again, I’ve the WHA details a little of this painting so I already know a little of the background context. La Méduse (The Medusa) was a French government frigate which wrecked in 1816, there were not enough lifeboats so the 150 passengers were put onto a hastily constructed raft to and left to drift for 13 days while the captain and crew made off with the lifeboats, only 15 of them survived.  This horrifying incident was famous from the papers, the audience of the Saloon where it was first exhibited would have known the story well. These people were truly victims of incompetence of the royalist captain, suffering for no noble cause. So the piece is about corruption of the newly restored monachy (for appointing the captain a newly returned royalist emigre). It stuck in people’s minds too, later, when once again revolution was building it was regarded as political allegory when historian Jules Michelet in 1847 said of it ‘France herself, our whole sociality, is on that raft‘. He did well though, he got a gold medal and a commissions from it, the composition was of the academy approved pyrimid format and the people were painted with the healthy physique of Greek athletes (WHA, p647), rather than emaciated, bearded and covered in sores which is actually how they appeared when rescued.

On the face of it though, the focus of the work is on suffering and hope. Even if you didnt know the story, this is clearly a picture of a raft of shipwrecked people, many whom have not survived, all piled into the small space on the raft to take their chances again nature with huge waves bearing down on them. The emotions of the people on the raft range from the bleak despair of the man who is clutching the dead body of another (presumably his son) on the bottom left, behind him in the shadows a man clutches at his head in madness, through to all the faces turning towards the boat on the horizon on the right in the distance. The man pointing at it and turning back looks a bit unsure, like he cant quite believe what he’s seen in the distance. You assume that the people waving with their backs to you are wearing expressions of hopeful desperation. Its powerfully upsetting enough just from the picture on my screen, i cannot even imagine the impact of this on such a giant scale, I’d probably cry.

Comparison with Goya’s 3rd May

In this, at least they have hope. In Goya’s work the expressions are that of pure hopelessness. Both works are both gruesome and physically imposing. They are both political. Both early Romanticism, both not quite history paintings in that they are painted on a grand scale but elevate & depict contemporay events. Both of the paintings are breaking with the traditions of a history painting. Both depict senseless loss of life by ordinary people, not heroes especially, innocent people. Both have been picked up as political allogory and inspired modern interpreatation by later artists. Goya had a patron for his work, and was already an established artist, conversely Géricault expressly picked this subject to launch his career (because he was comforatably middle class enough to be able to afford to work without commissions).

Context & Meaning:

The louvre information differs a little from the WHA write up. It’s based on Géricault, catalogue d’exposition, by Laveissiere written in 1991. It reports that the ship was Royal Navy and the 150 were soldiers, the frigate set sail in 1816 to colonize Senegal was captained by an “officer of the Ancien Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years and who ran the ship aground on a sandbank” (Lourve, 2017). Géricault spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting, he made numerous sketches, amassing documentation, questioning the survivors, working with models and wax figurines, severed cadavers, etc. It mentions two such preparatory sketches but I couldn’t find them in the Louvre catalogue as indicated. Interestingly it draws parallel between some of the figures from the raft and some of the figures from Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa by Gros which I was going to annotate instead of this against the Goya work. Géricault apparently greatly admired Gros.

Géricault’s Raft was the star at the Salon of 1819: “It strikes and attracts all eyes” (Le Journal de Paris). Critics were divided: the horror and “terribilità” of the subject exercised fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a “pile of corpses,” whose realism they considered a far cry from the “ideal beauty” incarnated by Girodet’s Pygmalion and Galatea (which triumphed the same year). Géricault’s work expressed a paradox: how could a hideous subject be translated into a powerful painting, how could the painter reconcile art and reality? Coupin was categorical: “Monsieur Géricault seems mistaken. The goal of painting is to speak to the soul and the eyes, not to repel.” (Lourve, 2017).

There is some conflicting information whether it was 15 or 10 that survived, i think this is because 15 survived by 5 died shortly afterwards so they didnt really survive long. Two of the survivers wrote a book on their experience. Géricault worked closely with them, skteching and interviewing them, he also attended the indictment trial of the ship’s captain, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys who hadnt been to sea for 20years and was wildly inexperienced for such a commission, the king came under fire for allowing his appointment. Dispite all this he tried to play down the political nature of the work by exhibiting it under the name Scene of a Shipwreck.

Like Caravaggio, he was young, Géricault painting the work when he was just 28. He employed the original maker of the raft to make him a replica from which work work. Wouldnt it be interesting if he’d used the same techniques with the Camera Obscura? The dimentions of the painting are such that this wouldnt be beyond the realm of possibilty. I did check Hockneys book but this painting isnt mentioned.

Obviously inspriartion for the painting came dirctly from the story and Géricault did meticulous research into dead bodies etc but there is clearly artist license being taken with the figures and the composition. I’ve already mentioned the influence of Carravaggio, but we also see influence of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Géricault himself stated of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment that “Michelangelo sent shivers up my spine, these lost souls destroying each other inevitably conjure up the tragic grandeur of the Sistine Chapel.” (Artble, 2017).

Its possible that some inspiration came from this painting by American artist John Singleton Copley which caused a stir in Londons Royal Academy in 1778. It depicts the story of 14–year–old Brook Watson, who in 1749, had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. I’m not sure if Géricault visited London but it would have been well known while he was doing his research.

John Singleton Copley (American, 1738 – 1815 ), Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund

According to Eitner, the composition when through several iterations as the artist progressed, he first had the raft much further back in the scene. By bringing it foward, filling the frame, the viewer then feels part of the action, this creates a great sense of tension and urgency to see what everyone is waving at.

“The effect of the scene now hinges on the juxtaposition of near and far elements” (Eitner, L, 1972)

The effect of the greatly forshorterend bodies also has an illusionisc effect on the depth of the painting, having the people on the raft so close, and the ship, the Argus, in the background so tiny, that tiny strip of ocean between the top of the raft and the horizon is interpretaed by the eye as miles and miles.

Eitner also points out that Géricault violated certain expectations that the audience would have. He radically broke with contemporary art when he created a major public image without traditional religious or political meanings, on such a large scale which was usually reserved for such. Additionally, Géricault omitted from the Raft all devices for placing human suffering in an ideological context.

Its drama has no heros and no message. No God, saint, or monarch presides over the disaster; no common cause is in evidence; no faith, no victory justifies the suffering of the men on the Raft: their martyrdom is one without palm or flag. It is as if Géricault had taken the foreground of human misery from one of the Gros’ pictures and omitted the apotheosis above. (Eitner, L, 1972)

The resulting image is of human isolation and helplessness without the  usual explanations.

One polarizing element was the inclusion of a black man holding the flag that could bring about their salvation. This was Géricault’s personal statement on the abolitionist movement. Political digs like these were what kept the public talking. (Artble, 2017)



Artble. (2017) The Raft of the Medusa At:
(Accessed on 21 Mar 17)

Eitner, L. (1972) Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. Phaidon Press Ltd

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Lourve. (2017) The Raft of the Medusa At:
(Accessed on 21 Mar 17)

LAVEISSIERE S., MICHEL R., CHENIQUE B., Géricault, catalogue d’exposition,  Grand Palais 1991-1992, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1991 (Via Lourve, 2017)
National Gallery of Art. (2017) Watson and the Shark At:
(Accessed on 21 Mar 17)


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