The Raft of the Medusa, (1818–1819) by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) is a massive painting, well over life size. The closest thing I can compare it to is literally the cinema screen.
It depicts a true story. On 2 July 1816 (that’s 201 years and 4 days ago) the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the African coast (what is now Mauritania). Three days later a group of at least 147 people set out on a hurriedly constructed raft. IN the 13 days they drifted, all but 15 died. Those who survived were starved and dehydrated, and finally some of them succumbed to cannibalism.
Then as now, the press went into paroxysms of titillation, and the story was widely reported. It was also a scandal because the ineptness of the ship’s captain (and implicitly, the French Navy) was blamed. Géricault was as interested as everyone else in this story and he decided that this would be the narrative that – on canvas – would really launch his career. And so he began to produce on the of the largest scale uncommissioned works on a modern topic ever painted. Perhaps THE largest.
Géricault did a lot of research. He got body parts from the morgue and copied them, trying to get the right shade and pulpiness of a drowned human body. He interviewed survivors. He cleverly combined Classical compositions with the dynamism that came to be called “Romantic” (I hate these labels and try to avoid them, but that’s what they call Géricault when you look him up) – and manages to convey both the pathos of the situation and the moment of hope as the survivors at the front of the raft spot a tiny ship in the distance (they ship that did in the end rescue them). By the way, unless you go to the Louvre and see the picture in real life you probably won’t see the tiny rescue ship.
The tonality is dark and Géricault uses the dramatic lighting style associated with Caravaggio – chiaroscuro – though it is probably fair to say that the original picture may have been somewhat brighter. The paints used at that particular time never aged very well (see Philip Ball’s brilliant book Bright Earth, on colour) so you’re not seeing exactly what Géricault painted. But clearly he did mean to have strong contrasts and dark tonality as the sea is rough and the sky is louring, though there is brightness ahead.
Aside from its film screen size, the painting is highly cinematic: dramatic, realistic, with a sense of the epic-heroic tragedy and a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal pyramidal structure. When you go and see it, you’ll really look at it for ages
So where is the exciting Titanic-like feature film based on Raft of the Medusa? It’s a great story with everything a filmmaker would want. It turns out that there IS one, a French film directed by Iradj Azimi (1998). But I can’t seem to find it. There’s a French graphic novel that looks good. But the film seems to have disappeared. Anyone up for doing another version? I’m available!
However the Raft of the Medusa I like the most is this preliminary sketch that the artist made. It’s also in the Louvre and it’s much smaller. Here we relay get to see the brilliance of Géricault’s composition and his storytelling ability