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This tension between the old and new extended further to his artistic style, which sought to reconcile his appreciation of the grand, monumental Neoclassicist style of Jacques-Louis David with his passion for virile, fluid subjects. This direction was made probable by the stormy circumstances of his private life in the years before the creation of the painting. Yet it is the intriguing and highly personal manner in which he was urged by the circumstances of the public and private spheres to create a painting that provides a rich insight into the emergence of Romanticism as an early response to those tumultuous times.

In its retreat towards the inner world of emotion, Romanticism could only serve to reinforce the personality of the artist himself as being central to the creation of his art—not only was the Romantic painting the product of its times, it was these trying times that became the implicit subject of, and were given their fullest expression on, the canvas. He left for the country to rest, but his physical and mental condition soon deteriorated to the point where his friends brought him back to Paris to seek medical help.

Such conventions of the Romantic can only be observed with hindsight. His coming of age in the s was a period where the Neoclassical style of David was getting tiresome, lacking the genuine conviction of public duty and patriotism that had marked its origins in the last quarter of the previous century. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The painting is an unresolved, existential plea for redemption that transcends the superficial, political veneer of its subject matter.

Its composition is marked by two divergent, intersecting, pyramidal structures—one running from the deceased male on the left extreme of the foreground, to the tip of the cloth which the dark-skinned man is waving in the air; the other beginning from the faceless body of the deceased figure on the right extreme of the foreground, running to the top of the mast.

The former seems to show a growing transition from despair to hope, contrasting the desolate stare of the father figure and the deceased bodies littering the wooden planks of the raft with the apparently desperate but hopeful gestures of the half-kneeling, half-sitting figures reaching out, upwards to a crescendo of salvific longing topped by the dark-skinned man, waving at the Argus, its mast faintly peeping out of the horizon. But there is no certainty of redemption, no satiation of the horrors of the fourteen days past. The figure in the centre, caught between the shoulders of the men with outstretched arms, almost seems to express a distressed torment, with his intense, yet emotionless expression, as if being repressed by the other two.

Nature herself seems at odds with the frenzied hopes of the men on the raft, blowing gustily with an almost preternatural strength that causes the mast to billow leftwards. It seems almost cruel that instead of blowing directly away from the Argus, the wind is taking them on a course parallel with the Argus on its picture plane, prolonging their torturous uncertainty, the moment between assured jubilance and monumental dejection.


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There is no true hope in this picture, only longing, whose outcome is rendered inconsequential by the irreparable sense of loss and decay that pervades the picture, epitomised by the figure of the father. This figure, his left arm bulging with unnatural strength, is the only one who faces the viewer, perhaps assuming the role of the storyteller in conventional history painting. His well-developed musculature contrasts starkly with the limp torso of the son, whose red hair and lithe frame suggests an innocence that has been terminated with death.

His absence of sentience and awkward posture makes his unclothed form border on the boundary between nudity and nakedness; the former connoting the rationalised acceptability and beauty of ideal form, the latter suggesting an intrusive, voyeuristic realism that borders on the vulgar.

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Source: The Trustees of the British Museum. Death stalks the painting. Its horror accrues not from depicting scenes of mutiny, cannibalism and disordered chaos, but from the knowledge that this depicts the aftermath of a bloody narrative. These are characters forever marred by an unforgettable memory of the abominations that have occurred.

The bloodstained axe head on the right, the headless body of the shrouded figure in the right foreground, the torso of the man in the extreme left foreground—his bloated, putrefied hand and triangular gaping wound beneath his ribs and the absence of his lower body—together provide chilling hints of the original carnage.

About Walter Benjamin and Romanticism

This pyramid consists not of disparate characters, but a fused collective; its fluidity of motion accomplished by the outstretched arms and the gradually accelerating curve of the pyramid that achieves a speed that simultaneously dismembers and reassembles the collective. In dismembering, this amalgamation of bodies becomes little more than a contortion of body parts—the flickering Caravaggesque chiaroscuro accentuating this cacophonous, tense fusion.

Dead and live body parts intersperse with little distinction, such as the black man to the right of the painting, whose mouth lies close to the buttocks of the red-haired, youthful figure; the array of dead figures foregrounding the picture from left to right shroud the rest of the figures in the picture with a deathly pallor. Source: Dubaut collection, Paris. The expected warmth of the orange hues of sunlight is pale and drained of vitality, overshadowed by the greys of billowing clouds and greyish greens of thundering waves.

Darkness haunts this picture—the projections of a mind fixated on death, despair and lostness. Its subordination of outer, idealised rationality to inner, subjective experience, fixated on the morbid, pushing towards the extremities of suffering and a loss of innocence, express not a message but a sense of the tragic, rooted not in the teleological redemption and resolution of Classicism, but in a persistent turbulence that channels the vast ambivalence of human experience.

The important observation is that both sides coloured their reviews of the painting through highly polarised lenses that overlooked its originality in the impact of its confronting and emotional pleas on the viewer, but instead employed a stock discourse that reflected the vast divisions in French politics of the time. These continuities flow unapologetically into his work, but serve to strengthen, rather than erode the robustness of the Romantic enterprise.

The Raft of the Medusa demonstrates how this nascent Romanticism is the complex product of a society and individual irrevocably shrouded in a time of crisis. All at sea. Grimaldo Grigsby, Darcy.

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New Haven: Yale University Press, Eitner, Lorenz and Nash, Steven A. Yale French Studies, : 7— Rosenthal, Donald A. The Burlington Magazine.


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Walter Benjamin and Romanticism

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The Origins of Romanticism

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