Why the tragic “The raft of the Medusa” was considered scandalous?

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art with Alessandro! This is the third episode of the Romanticism series and today I want to talk about a painting that was inspired by a real tragedy: The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault.

What I am going to say is based on true events and I want to anticipate that they are kind of shocking. However, we are going to appreciate more the great job of the painter and the impact he had.

The raft of the Medusa, Romantic painting by Géricault
ARTIST: Théodore Géricault
NAME The Raft of the Medusa
LOCATION Louvre Museum, Paris
YEAR 1818-1819
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 491×716 cm (16×23 ft)
MATERIAL Oil on Canvas

The Raft of the Medusa is an oil painting of 1818–19 completed by the artist when he was 27. It is a huge painting 491 by 716 cm (or 16 ft by 23 ft) that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on 2nd July 1816.

The Story The raft of the Medusa

Let me tell you very fast the story before that moment. Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys had been appointed captain of the frigate despite having scarcely sailed in 20 years and, in an effort to make good time, on July 2nd, it ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast.

Efforts to free the ship failed, so, on July 5th, the passengers and crew started an attempt to travel the 100 km (60 mi) to the African coast in the frigate’s six boats.

However, the Méduse was carrying 400 people and there was space for only about 250 in the boats! So, at least 146 men and one woman took place onto a really unsafe raft that already partially submerged once it was loaded.

The raft of the Medusa, Romantic painting by Géricault
The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault

The Tragedy The raft of the Medusa

The captain and crew aboard the other boats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few miles the raft was turned loose. After 13 days without food and water the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance and, by that time, only 15 men were still alive. In the attempt of surviving, the men were killing each other, had thrown themselves into the sea, come died of starvation, but some opted for cannibalism.

The event became an international scandal and Géricault, cleverly, chose to depict this event in order to launch his career.

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The Scene

So he painted this tragic scene that can be divided into 2 sections: the lower one where we can see death and hopelessness and the upper one with the survivors who are waving at something.

Géricault in fact depicted the moment when the Argus is visible, well barely visible, on the horizon and she will rescue them.

This emotional contrast is amplified also thanks to the chiaroscuro effects that make the scene even more dramatic showing the great realism that Géricault has been able to reach.

He did it carefully painting every single detail, from the faces to the muscles, but also the cloths and, of course the environment.


And if we look carefully there are also some "hidden" figures. Can you see them? The answer in the interactive image below

Even if the raft fills most of the painting in fact, and the double pyramid structure helps to suggest this idea, the environment is fundamental. In Romanticism, nature was really important. And here this importance is evident because the warm sunset is in contrast with the immense cloudy sky and the scary wavy ocean that in one moment could crush the raft and the survivors.

Géricault’s great job

As I said in the first episode, these are the foundations of Romanticism: the role of the man and his emotions amplified by the power of the nature, in one world: sublime.

You can imagine the impact this painting had back then. The event was really popular, but just on words. Géricault undertook extensive research, he interviewed two of the survivors and he visited hospitals and morgues to be more accurate. As a result, he put the viewers in front of a picture and that generates a lot of mix feelings, scandal, but also his success.

I hope you enjoyed this post, remember to watch the YouTube video and subscribe if you haven’t done it yet because in the next episode we are going to read another important Romantic painting. Ciao!

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