How can we forget this gruesome scene of a drifting boat collapsing under a pyramid of corpses and starving survivors? Immersed in the horrors of The Raft of the Medusa (1818), we discover how Théodore Géricault fought slavery and defended racial equality by painting a subtle message.
A Shock to the Audience
The Louvre, Paris, 1819. At the Salon, a major art exhibition, people crowd around a large painting that fascinates and disgusts. We see a raft holding a dozen survivors in a despairing state. One of them particularly catches the eye…
A Real-Life Event
The young French artist, Théodore Géricault, took hold of a recent news item: the sinking of the boat, La Méduse, caused by the captain's incompetence. The captain scrimmaged to save himself and upper-class passengers, abandoning the remaining riders to die - a true scandal! The shortage of lifeboats caused the remaining 147 passengers to embark on a small raft. Starvation, cannibalism, murder, and death followed. Ten survived before being rescued by another boat.
Géricault paints the moment before the rescue. At the top of the composition, a black man waves a cloth in the direction of a tiny boat. It is this character that bristles some visitors. Or rather, his skin color...
At the time, black people were still too often perceived as inferior individuals. It was rare to find a man of color in such a prominent role - one which embodied hope.
Géricault's decision to paint a black man as the pivotal figure was a controversial expression of his support for anti-slavery. Within the composition, we also see several black men in the middle of this macabre scene, which denounces both the incompetence of the powerful and the slavers.
The model Joseph
Géricault based the black man in his work on Joseph, a Haitian model well known to artists. We find him in several paintings of the time where he is often confined to the role of the "noble savage".
Géricault made the radical choice to depict Joseph in an equivalent standing to white men. In addition to painting this drama, the artist renews the place of the black man in art, no offense to some!
The theme of slave trade was never eliminated at the time. Théodore Géricault, a politically conscious artist, took a risk by asserting an anti-slavery position in The Raft of The Medusa, but he was first and foremost a Romantic, both artistically and spiritually. And as such, he could not control his emotions when life was so atrocious for so many. Beyond his fascination with death and the morbid, he was carried by exaltations, the fight against slavery, and faith in the equality of races.