Sunday, 9 April 2017

Gericault's Raft of the Medusa and Turner's Slave Ship

The Comparison of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa and Turner's The Slave Ship

Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa was painted in 1818-1819.  It was done in oil on canvas and was done in the French Romantic Style.  The image itself was a recreation of an Actual French Merchant Ship which was carrying passengers in the Atlantic Ocean. The accident happened just prior to his painting this image and was the impetus for him to do so. It was a statement against the politics of the time where a person could get a position not because they were qualified to hold the job, but because of political friends. It’s the story of how the captain abandoned the passengers he was supposed to be protecting to save his own life. It sent a very strong political message, it spoke clearly of how this was not an accident and was an act of selfishness on the part of the Captain of the vessel. The image itself is a hopeful one however; as you can see the wave in the distance with a sail showing, meaning rescue is at hand.  Gericault actually went to the morgue to draw a drowned corpse so he could accurately show what they look like.  There is even an anti-slave comment hidden in the painting since the one who spots them and rescues them is a black slave.  The image itself is set up much like a historical painting since it represents the figures as far more heroic than they would have been when rescued.  But it is very much a modern work.  It brings out a full spectrum of emotion in the viewer based on the very darkness of the image and the corpses, the image of an older man holding what we can assume is his son and mourning him. And the raft literally washed up into our space puts us in the water with these poor souls.

Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa

J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship was painted in 1840.  Like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa it was painted in Oil on canvas and was Romantic in style. This painting is a definite statement against slavery and the slave trade. Where Gericault hid his feelings against slavery in the painting Turner slapped the viewer in the face with it.  The image itself shows the slaves thrown overboard.  You see hands, legs, chains and human bodies thrown overboard in chains so they will drown.  It is a scene full of horror and angst, yet even in that horror there is a sense of divine retribution as a cyclone or typhoon bearing down on that very slave vessel.  Even then we see the total indifference of nature since the storm will not only overcome the slave ship but will also drown the poor slaves thrown overboard in chains. Turner was speaking out against the horrors and the very idea that human beings could be so cruel and do such unspeakable acts all for the sake of money.

J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship

Both artists were speaking out against Slavery and Politics in general. Both artists portrayed landscape scenery in a manner that evoked feelings in you.  And both artists painted acts that had happened. While Gericault’s was an actual event that everyone knew happened, Turner’s is not an actual event. Turner’s painting was a compilation of all the known slave dumping’s to make money on insurance.  These two artists were both speaking against the cruel nature of man.

Turner’s painting was more about the weather itself being stronger than man.  Some even say that the ship in Turner’s painting was actually a symbol of the Catholic Church or human life. While the brooding storm, whipping waves were all transcendental powers or God.  And that Turner was speaking out about the futility of fighting God. 

I believe that both artists were letting the world know their views about slavery and the cruel nature of man. And while I personally prefer the imagery in Gericaults painting over Turner’s painting the hidden messages in both are done with meticulous care so only those who study the paintings can actually get the full effect of what these talented artists were trying to tell the world.

What do you think about these two artists? And did you pick up the hidden message at first glance?  Let me know in your reply.

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