By the second night, a group of men had mutinied and attempted to kill the officers and destroy the raft, and by the third day, "those whom death had spared in the disastrous night […] fell upon the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, and cut off pieces, which some instantly devoured" (Savigny & Correard 192). Ultimately, the survivors were reduced to throwing the wounded overboard, and only after they had been reduced to fifteen men, "almost naked; their bodies and faces disfigured by the scorching beams of the sun," were they finally rescued by the Argus, which had set sail six days earlier to search for the raft and the wreck of the Medusa (Savigny & Correard 203).
Theodore Gericault's the Raft of the Medusa captures the moment on the 17th of July when the Argus first became visible to the survivors, and his choice to reflect upon this moment in particular reveals something about his intentions (Alhadeff 70). The Raft of the Medusa was his first major work, and was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1819 as part of a massive installation sponsored by Louis XVIII; "his choice was careful and methodical: this was a subject matter he considered suitable for an ambitious painting with which he could win the Prix de Rome" (Deligiori 613). Gericault's desire was undoubtedly to sell the painting either to a private buyer or the government, but "the size of the painting made it impossible to sell to private buyers and its subject matter had no appeal to a conservative royalist government," so it went into storage in his studio (Isham 168). However, this did not mean that his hope that the painting would be "a catalyst for political reform" failed to come true; rather, he simply died before seeing the true fruits of his work, when, just over a decade later, the Bourbon monarchy was once again overthrown (Galenson 103). This is not to suggest that Gericault's painting was the most important factor in the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy, but rather that it served to cement in the public eye the devastating effects of "the rampant cronyism displayed in organizing this ill-fated expedition" (Isham 168).
While the image itself is clearly stylized, and in fact helped to encourage the development of Romanticism in Europe, Gericault put an enormous amount of research into his work, as he "talked to survivors, studied sick people and corpses in hospitals, and even had a model of the raft made and took it to the coast to study its behavior in the waves" (Isham 168). This research supplemented the written account offered by Savigny and Correard, as well as conversations between Gericault and Correard. The intersection of Romanticized stylization and realistic details is one reason the Raft of the Medusa is so striking, and a close visual analysis of the painting itself will reveal how Gericault used this intersection of styles and themes to criticize the indifference of the Bourbon regime while celebrating the potential for redemption. Upon first glance, the eye is immediately drawn to lower-left corner of the image, where two dead figures lie sprawled. One of the dead men is only visible from the waist up, representing one of those "unhappy wretches, having their lower extremities entangled in the openings between the pieces of the raft," while the other's body is almost entirely visible, naked and splayed (Savigny & Correard 181). The more visible of the two seems to be cradled by an older man, and indeed, various critics have "taken [this] to be a father grieving the death of his son" (Harris 602).
Along with a few other dead bodies flung about the raft, these figures demonstrate the "kind of hell" the survivors endured (Jefferson 84). Visually, the dead young man cradled by the older is a kind of despondent, hopeless pieta, where the body of Christ is replaced with a sickly youth, and the holy cross with a ramshackle raft. Recognizing visual connection between the young corpse and the common visual trope of a dead Jesus also inevitably focuses the viewer's mind on the theme of cannibalism, as the flesh of these dead men offered a kind of saving communion for the survivor's. While cannibalism is not directly represented in the image, the limbs of the various dead bodies appear splayed and disjointed, so that the bodies break down into their constitutive parts and become nothing more than meat and bone piled upon the still-living bodies of the survivors. The survivors, then, are almost suffocated with abundance; at the same time that the bodies of the dead transform into food that might save the living, the living are overwhelmed by the sheer mass of corpses.
As the eye travels along the bodies from left to right, the figures gradually become more active and vital. A few men struggle to reach forwards while dead bodies weigh them down, while the most rightward figures stand or sit on barrels, waving scraps of cloth to signal the distant Argus, which can be seen as a dot on the horizon. The highest figure signaling to the Argus is that of Jean Charles, the only surviving black passenger of the Medusa. The line of bodies is entirely in the foreground, and although it moves away from the viewer such that Charles' body is almost half the size of the corpses, this line is clearly lit and distinct, pointing towards the distant background. The sweep of the eye from left to right follows this line of bodies from the dead corpses in the lower left to the triumphantly waving Charles in the upper right, but there is another group of figures which the viewer does not notice until the eye has passed Charles and moves towards the background. These figures stand next to the mast, shrouded in the shadow cast by the sail, and one points to the distant Argus while looking back at one of his fellows. This figure pointing has variously been interpreted as either Correard or Savigny, but regardless of who it is, this figure is remarkable for being the only one not looking towards the horizon, but rather back to his fellow survivors.
The Raft of the Medusa is painted with a rather muted palate, consisting largely of browns and greens, as the water, raft, and sickly bodies work together to evoke feelings of dampness, decay, and death. While bits of white foam hug the edge of the raft, there is no clear line showing which portions of the raft and completely above water, making the survivors appear to be surging out of the ocean on a stream of corpses and debris. Furthermore, the lighting is highly dramatic, with the pale bodies of the dead contrasting with the slightly deeper color of the living. Thus, the movement and color of the painting contributes to the overall effect produced by the details of the image, all of which serve to centralize the idea of success and salvation at the expense of the discarded dead. However, in order to understand the extent of this theme's connection to the Bourbon monarchy and the political context of its creation, it will be necessary to consider some previous critical receptions and interpretations of the painting, because only by addressing the myriad interpretations of the Raft of the Medusa will its political content become clear.
Complicating Interpretations and the Historicity of Gericault's Raft
Following its original debut in 1819, "predictably art critical response in the French press largely followed political affiliations, [with] the painting provoking either revulsion or admiration according to respective Bourbon or Liberal sympathies," but since then, "as numerous art historical studies testify, Gericault's painting defies a single reading" (Riding 39). Noting this is not to suggest that this essay has given up on interpreting the image "as a political allegory of the French nation" rather than "a cruel parody of heroic [or] a shipwreck cast as Biblical deluge," but is rather an attempt to address the various interpretations the painting has received, and to demonstrate how these various interpretations, for the most part, are not mutually exclusive, but rather work in conjunction to reveal the extent of the undeniably political message (Riding 39). This is an especially important task considering that the painting is often viewed in two different ways; on the one hand, it can be seen as capturing "a time when the ruin of the raft may be said to be complete," but on the other hand, it has been interpreted as "a radically democratic vision" full of hope and possibility (Riding 39, Grigsby 168). In reality, the image is far more nuanced, and argues that any hope for the future must take into account the atrocities of the past, and perhaps even consume and subsume those atrocities in order to overcome them.…