Hell on Earth

Matthew Israel
Mar 19, 2013 3:16PM

Géricault completed this work when he was just 27. The painting focuses on the shipwreck of the French Royal Navy frigate, the Medusa, which occurred on July 2nd, 1816, off the coast of Senegal. As the story goes, the boat only had three lifeboats, and when it went down, 150 soldiers were abandoned by the captain and his crew to make do on a jerry-rigged raft. This large group soon lost their ability to stay together and separated out into smaller groups. The painting features the only raft–if you could even call it that–that survived after thirteen days at sea. While the raft carried fifteen passengers to safety, only ten finally survived. 

The painting depicts the craft right before its moment of rescue. (Zoom in and see the speck of a ship in the distance.) It is a scene of insanity, mutiny, famine, thirst, as well as cannibalism. Or in other words, this is hell on earth. Importantly, the composition was rooted in a written account by two of the survivors that was published for the French public. Their account was political dynamite, because in relaying how a captain and his crew left behind the passengers on the ship, it was a harsh indictment of aristocratic privilege, for the captain's status was the only reason he had his job. 

To mood of the raft hovers between the purest hope and the worst suffering. Emotions get more hopeful as you move towards the top of what has both been called a triangular and an X-shaped composition. Also, as you move up, you progress from death to the waving hand of Jean Charles, a black soldier, who signals contact with the rescue boat. It was unprecedented that a black man would be the primary focus of a painting at this point in history. (As well, Jean Charles is one of three black men in the painting, even though the account of the survivors included only one.) Many have interpreted Charles' placement and these inclusions as a very conscious choice on the part of Géricault, who was a member of an abolitionist group, to question the institution of slavery. 

Matthew Israel