Wake of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa measures approximately 16' x 23' and was painted by Théodore Géricault between 1818 and 1819. The painting lives at the Louvre in Paris, France.

The Pogues evidently thought highly of the painting. It was modified to be the cover of the Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash release. Jem Finer also wrote a song titled "The Wake of the Medusa" for the Hell's Ditch release.

"THÉODORE GÉRICAULT (1791-1824) studied with an admirer of David (P. N. Guérin), but in the pupil the rigid neoclassicism of the Davidian school receded to allow David's use of sharp light and shade to come to the fore. Géricault's work is also characterized by a maturing of the naturalistic element and further movement toward the dramatic presentation of contemporary events on huge canvases. For Géricault (unlike his predecessors), these events did not always demand a central hero. His masterpiece, Raft of the Medusa, shows these influences as well as those of Michaelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. Géricault took for his subject the ordeal of the survivors of the french ship Medusa, which had foundered of the west coast of Africa in 1816, laden with Algerian immigrants. This incident was the result of tragic mismanagement and provoked scandal in France when the survivors were able to tell their stories. Géricault's depiction of the anguish of the event was construed by the government as an outright political attack. The artist avoided showing the most horrific aspects of the tragedy - murder, cannibalism, and immense hardship - in choosing to depict the dramatic moment when the frantic castaways attempted to attract the attention of a distant ship that was eventually to rescue them. Fifteen survivors and several corpses are piled onto one another in every attitude of suffering, despair, and death (recalling Gros's Pest House) and are arranged in a powerful X-shaped composition. One light filled diagonal axis stretches from bodies at the lower left up to the figure of the black man, raised on the shoulders of his comrades and waiving a piece of cloth towards the horizon. The cross-axis descends from the storm clouds and dark, wind filled sail at the upper left to the shadowed upper torso of the body trailing in the open sea.

"Although baroque tactics abound, Géricault's use of shock tactics, stunning the viewer's sensibilities, amounted to something new - a new tone and intention that distinguished the "high" phase of romanticism. In this phase, an instinct for the sublime and the terrible, qualities celebrated in the esthetic theory and art of the eighteenth century (see, for example, Fuselli's Nightmare), found sharpest expression in a method of reportorial accuracy far more stringent than that found in certain works by David. The value Géricault placed on accuracy in Raft of the Medusa is indicated by the fact that he carried out prodigious research and completed numerous preliminary studies for the work, even going so far as to interview survivors of the wreck.


"In Géricault's paintings, suffering, death, and madness amounted to nature itself, for nature, in the end, is formless and destructive." *

This scan of the painting originated at the Louvre's web page, at

* - From Art Through the Ages, Ninth Edition, Vol. II by De La Croix, Tansey, and Kirkpatrick (Copyright 1991, 1986, 1980, 1975, 1970, 1959, copyright 1948, 1936, 1926), pp. 873-874

    0-15-503769-2 (Hardbound)
    0-15-503770-6 (paperbound, Vol. I)
    0-15-503771-4 (paperbound, Vol. II)

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