The Best Painting in the Louvre in Paris: Gericault's Raft of the Medusa
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
"The truly gifted individual does not fear obstacles, because he knows that he can surmount them; indeed they often are an additional asset; the fever they are able to excite in his soul is not lost; it even often becomes the cause of the most astonishing productions."
-- Théodore Gericault
The august Louvre is one of Paris' must see sites, particularly if you're on the museum circuit in Paris. It's a massive museum. Having been many times, and from an art lover's perspective, I think Théodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa is the best painting in the Louvre.
Most people in Room 700 are standing in front of Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Instead, sidle up to the massive 16 feet x 24 feet Raft of the Medusa and prepare to be amazed and perhaps a little frightened.
The Real Life Tragedy Behind Gericault's Painting
The Raft of the Medusa is not your typical Salon painting. It depicts a gruesome tale of an ill-piloted ship. It was based on an international tragedy, a tale of incompetence and cannibalism.
The story begins in June 1816. A French royal frigate ship, the Medusa, was headed to Senegal to reclaim the colony from the British. It broke apart at sea due to the captain's navigational error. An ardent monarchist, captain Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was a political hack and hadn't sailed in 25 years. He ran the ship aground in a sandbar off the coast of today's Mauritania.
There were only five lifeboats for 400 passengers, so a raft was built. The officers and important people took the comfortable lifeboats; the riffraff got the raft. It was the order of the day, and perhaps still is: save the elite and forget the leftovers.
The raft was supposed to be towed to safety. But it was already sinking. On the captain's orders, an officer lowered a hatchet and ruthlessly cut loose the raft with 147 men aboard. The raft drifted into the Atlantic and was abandoned at sea. An evil and cowardly evacuation indeed.
Then things got nasty. Fighting, murder, famine, and cannabalism ensued. Some men supposedly jumped into the sea to let sharks devour them, only to be stung by swarming jellyfish and crawl back onto the raft. Only 15 men survived, 5 died shortly afterward. Two survivors wrote a tell all bestselling autobiography, roiling French society.
It was the most famous shipwreck before the Titanic. Scandal and uproar ensued in post Napoleonic France. This wasn't supposed to happen.
The grisly episode inspired one of the greatest, and biggest, paintings of the 19th century.
Life of the Painter Théodore Géricault
Enter Théodore Géricault. Géricault was from a wealthy family and not beholden to critics or patrons. He could paint what he wanted. He didn't have much formal training and only painted when he was particularly inspired.
Géricault led a tortured and bizarre life. He may have been bipolar. He had a passionate affair with his aunt, Alexandrine-Modeste Caruel, the young wife of his uncle. The affair resulted in scandal and produced a son that was spirited away. Géricault was also in consistently poor health. He said "suffering is real and pleasures are nothing but imaginary."
Despite this bleak outlook, Géricault was a visionary and helped usher in the Romantic Period of painting. He influenced a young Eugene Delacroix, the most famous of the French Romantic painters.
Géricault's paintings were subjective and emotional. They often featured strange and horrific subjects and explored the harsh reality of human existence. Unlike other artists, Géricault wasn't afraid to tackle social and political issues. He had republican tendencies and empathy for the poor, marginalized, and dispossessed.
Géricault used loose, energetic brush strokes and chiaroscuro contrasts, the latter influenced by Caravaggio. These techniques amplified the emotion in his paintings and broke away from the refined, polished surfaces of the Neoclassicists.
Géricault was also known for paintings nudes in unconventional positions, as in the Raft of Medusa. His contorted, heavily muscled bodies were influenced by Renaissance genius Michelangelo. Géricault once said that Michelangelo's The Last Judgement made him "tremble."
A copy of the survivors' bestselling book landed in Géricault's hands. The 26 year old was moved by the tragic tale of the French shipwreck and determined to paint it. He obsessed over the project, which took him 18 months to complete. He immersed himself in the horror of the event:
"[His research] preparations were prodigious. He interviewed survivors, visited morgues to get the right deathly skin pallor and filled his flat with body parts (including a severed head from a lunatic asylum) to act as “models."
Delacroix posed as the dark haired figure lying face down in the front of the painting with outstretched arms. He later said: “Géricault allowed me to see his Raft of Medusa while he was still working on it. It made so tremendous an impression on me that when I came out of the studio I started running like a madman and did not stop till I reached my own room.”
Géricault constructed a detailed scale model of the raft. He read damning newspaper accounts of the shipwreck and even attended the trial of the ship's wicked captain. The verdict carried a potential death penalty. But the negligent captain was sentenced to only three years in jail.
Rocking the Boat: The Painting That Shocked the World
Géricault ended up painting a vast tableau of gruesome figures -- some dead, some struggling to attract the attention of a distant ship, and some miserably resigned to their fate. He included a black man holding a flag that could bring about their salvation. It was a thoroughly modern political painting, but rendered in the large scale style of a Salon painting.
With it, Géricault became one of the first artists to document a grim event torn from the headlines. Previously, artists used heroic themes from mythology, history, or religion. Géricault's decision to paint a contemporary event was controversial, and possibly art for the sake of agitation.
Géricault's painting shocked the world. It was not only an unconventional Salon work, but also an indictment of the French government. It was different than anything seen before.
And the Bourbon monarch didn't like it. The true story was an embarrassment to them, and they had covered up parts of it.
The painting was viewed as an almost treasonous anti-monarchist piece. It was a compelling metaphor for the ship of State being out of control. It was a symbol of the struggle of the poor against the privileged, one where the poor paid the price for the glaring incompetence and indifference of the privileged.
The colossal painting did not garner glowing reviews. It debuted at the 1819 Salon and divided art critics.
One critic conceded, "It strikes and attracts all eyes." Others dismissed it as nothing but "a pile of corpses" and said “it was meant to gladden the eaters of carcasses.” The painting was censured for its repellent, low brow subject matter.
To Géricault's chagrin, the painting didn't sell. And the Louvre did not request it for its French gallery. When the Salon closed, Géricault cut the painting from its frame and put it in storage.
Géricault needed a geographical cure. In 1820, he took his painting to London. It enjoyed wide success; 40,000 gathered to see it. The piece influenced the British Romantic artist, J. M.W. Turner.
Raft of the Medusa only entered the Louvre's collection in 1824, after Géricault's early death at 32 from spinal tuberculosis.
The Louvre Experience
The Raft of the Medusa has lived in the Louvre for 200 years, and is regarded as an iconic masterpiece. It is a landmark in the history of painting, jump starting the Romantic Movement and influencing the course of modern art.
The painting influenced Honoré Daumier, Gustave Courbet, and Edouard Manet. It was reproduced in different styles by modern and contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Max Ernst, Frank Stella, and Peter Saul.
In person, the wrenching painting isn't easy to look at.
It's overwhelming and unsettling. You're confronted with visceral material. It shows a moment of high suspense between fleeting hope and utter despair. The emotions of fear, pain, and madness are writ large. But there is also hope and a brief moment of euphoria, as the frantic men desperately brandish tattered rags at a ship on the horizon.
A high resolution photo on your computer can't compare. The painting is so large that you feel enveloped in the scene, no doubt as Géricault intended. It surges and lurches. You are an eye witness, and may become seasick just looking at it.
Forget the Mona Lisa. This is the best painting in the Louvre.
Where to find the Raft of the Medusa at the Louvre: