I began college as a studio art major. As a studio major it’s often required for students to enroll in several art history courses, usually the courses are survey classes which cover a large breadth of art history in a single semester. My school requires that studio majors take three art history survey classes: Non-Western Art, Pre-historic to Medieval, and Renaissance to Modern. The first survey class I took was Renaissance to Modern, where we spent some time learning about the first of Famous Friday works – The Raft of the Medusa. This is the work that sparked my interest in art history, and led me down a path of changing my major from studio to art history and was the gateway piece for my love of French paintings.
Géricault based his painting off of a contemporary event where a French boat carrying soldiers sank off of the coast of Senegal on a voyage to colonize the region in 1816. Captained by an officer who hadn’t sailed for nearly 20 years (and who was largely given the position as a political favor), the ship ran into a sandbank which sank the ship. A shortage of lifeboats caused many of the sailors to build their own raft and embarked on a two week mission in attempt to save their lives. Thirteen days after the ship sank, 15 survivors were rescued on the makeshift raft that they had created. This event quickly became an international scandal due to the incompetence of the French captain, and the sheer amount of human lives lost.
The painting itself pictures the moment where the remaining 15 sailors notice the rescue ship, Argus, in the distance. The raft is depicted barley afloat, with the crew in utter dispair. Closest to the viewer, several men are portrayed clutching on to one another, and almost being swept away by the oncoming waves. Towards the middle, the men have noticed a ship in the distance and they are attempting to make contact with the boat by waving pieces of fabric in the air.
The artist spent a great deal of time drafting, revising, and conversing with the survivors of the shipwreck in order to get a better understanding of the happenings, in order to create this work which we now know as one of the greatest icons of French Romanticism.