Daily Dose of Europe: Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa

A glimmer of hope in a time of crisis…this painting feels made for our current time.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Here’s one of my favorites.

In 1816, the French ship Medusa went down off the coast of Africa, and the tragedy gripped the nation. Accounts poured in of the unspeakable hardships these French citizens suffered.

In Paris, the young artist Théodore Géricault began chronicling the tragic event. Like a method actor, he immersed himself in the project. He interviewed survivors and honed his craft sketching dead bodies in the morgue and the twisted faces of lunatics in asylums. He shaved his head and worked alone, wallowing in the very emotions he wanted to portray.

He captured the moment when all hope seemed lost.

Clinging to a raft in the midst of a storm-tossed sea is a tangle of bodies sprawled over each other. The scene is alive with agitated, ominous motion — the ripple of muscles, churning clouds, and choppy waves. The rickety raft is nearly swamped. The dark colors — dull green seas, dark brown raft, and ghostly flesh — are as drained of life as the survivors’ spirits. On the right is a deathly green corpse dangling overboard. Of the 150 people who originally packed onto the raft, only these few remained. They floated in the open seas for almost two weeks — suffering unimaginable hardship and hunger, even resorting to cannibalism. The face of the old man on the left, cradling his dead son, says it all — it’s hopeless.

But wait!

There’s a stir in the crowd. Someone has spotted something. The bodies rise up in a pyramid of hope. The diagonal motion culminates in a waving flag. They wave frantically, trying to catch the attention of something on the horizon, their last desperate hope. It’s a tiny ship — the ship that did finally rescue them and bring the 15 survivors home.

For months, Géricault worked feverishly on this giant canvas. When he emerged, it captured the traumatized mood of a French nation still in mourning. Géricault had also revolutionized art, paving the way for a bold new style — Romanticism. His contemporaries were still following the Neoclassical tradition of idealized gods and Greek-statues-on-canvas. Géricault shattered the mold, adding a gritty realism and super-ultra-mega-heightened emotion. What better story than this shipwreck to shock and awe the public? In the artistic war between hearts and minds, Géricault’s Romantic style went straight to the heart. He used rippling movement, strong shadows, and powerful colors to catch us up in the excitement. If art controls your heartbeat, this is a masterpiece.

It also sounded another trumpet of the Romantic movement. Ultimately, it championed the godlike heroism of ordinary people who rise above their suffering to survive.

This art moment — a sampling of what we try to incorporate in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Lourve.