During the 19th century, at the height of the Enlightenment, neoclassicists and romanticists debated the purpose of art.
The neoclassicists looked back to ancient Greece and Rome for guidance. They were concerned with reestablishing order and structure in their artistic creations. Often, neoclassical paintings, like Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii,” looked to accurately illustrate historical stories down to the dress and architecture.
The romanticists, however, felt that the neoclassicists were missing out on the emotional component of art. For instance, the romanticists believed that contemporary stories had a great ability to emotionally stir the souls who witnessed them. Romanticists wanted their artistic creations to have heightened emotional impact.
As a romanticist, Théodore Géricault, a French painter of the 19th century, wanted to create emotionally charged works of art based on contemporary events. He was still greatly influenced by traditional art, however, and studied the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Michelangelo so that he could cultivate the skills necessary to exceptionally represent the contemporary events he wanted to portray.
Rebuilding the Raft of Medusa
Géricault had an opportunity to put his artistic skills to the test when, in 1816, the captain of the Medusa, a French Royal Navy frigate, ran the ship aground. There weren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone, and 150 people were left behind. Those abandoned built a raft that carried them out to sea for 13 days. Only 10 would survive.
In preparation for painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” Géricault did a lot of research. According to the Louvre Museum website:
“Gericault spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting. … He began by amassing documentation and questioning the survivors, whom he sketched; he then worked with a model and wax figurines, studied severed cadavers in his studio, [and] used friends as models…”
Organizing the Sublime
Géricault wanted to depict the hope of the human spirit when it’s made to confront horrific circumstances, a circumstance akin to the sublime. According to the Tate galleries’ website, “Edmund Burke’s ‘Philosophical Enquiry’ (1757) connected the sublime with experiences of awe, terror, and danger. Burke saw nature as the most sublime object, capable of generating the strongest sensations in its beholders.”
Géricault depicted the powerless survivors suspended between the horizon of sky and water. He organized the composition according to two diagonals: one using the rope that attaches the raft to the mast from bottom right to upper left, and one using the bodies from bottom left to upper right, given emphasis by a similar rope leading from the mast to the raft. The use of diagonal compositional elements, as opposed to vertical or horizontal elements, increases the sense of energy in a composition.
The figures in the composition increase in energy as they move from bottom left to top right. The figures at the bottom left are dying or dead. One figure sits with a body splayed over his lap, rests his hand on his head, and has a look of resignation on his face.
The figure immediately behind him, however, turns to look at the mass of figures toward the front of the raft. The energy increases toward the front of the raft as several figures lunge forward and reach, grab, and point.
Two figures at the front of the raft wave flags as if they are calling something in the distance. And what are they calling? They are hoping that a faraway ship will see and rescue them.
Hope for the Impossible
So what is Géricault saying to us? To me, he is suggesting that beauty does not correspond only to how things look, but there’s also a beauty within our spirit. This beauty has the potential to present itself when we are made to confront the horrific things that life sometimes throws our way; this beauty of spirit gives us hope in the presence of the seemingly impossible.
It is true that necessity breeds invention, but why do we invent if we don’t also hope? I can’t help but think that this raft was crafted by these men because their lives depended on it. Men of all different colors and backgrounds had to work together to survive, because they hoped to survive.
This painting speaks to me as a black man in America. I know many people of different races, genders, backgrounds, and we all hope to survive. I understand how it is sometimes difficult to be hopeful. The media often presents information that exacerbates our sense of hopelessness, and we are left to resign ourselves, our heads in our hands, our backs to our futures.
I, however, see the ship in the distance as we drift aimlessly on this raft we call life. I see those who share the raft with me—some who have given up hope and some who place their hope in the impossible—and I wonder how necessity will shape our hope toward the impossible.
And what constitutes my impossible? What constitutes my ship in the distance? My hope is for a cultivated authenticity among us all, a compassion for all, including those who would cause us harm. I hope for patience during the horrific. Despite the horrors we confront, I’m left hopeful for us all in the face of the impossible.
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).