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Raft Of The Medusa Essays

The sea, shipwreck and the sublime

To contextualise this case study it is first important to remember what a prominent and consistent role the sea has played in critical and theoretical discussions of the sublime. Indeed, throughout the history of the sublime, to quote the writer Barbara Freeman, ‘the sea has often served as its most appropriate, if not exemplary, metaphor’.4 For the anonymous author known as Pseudo-Longinus, who wrote the first-known treatise on the subject, the ocean’s majesty of scale and thus its sublimity were self-evident:

Hence it is almost an instinct that we follow in giving our admiration, not to small streams, though they be pellucid and useful, but to the Nile and Danube, or Rhine, and far more to the Ocean.5

It was equally self-evident to the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was arguably the best known and most paraphrased (if not the most widely read) treatise on the sublime in Britain. In his oft-quoted summation of the sublime, Burke juxtaposes his key concept of terror with the vastness of the sea:

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain and death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror, be endured with greatness of dimensions or not ... And to things of great dimension, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.6

He later concludes that, ‘These waters must be troubled before they can exert their virtues’, thus suggesting the added value of storm, as opposed to calm, for powerful effect.7 While Burke and other commentators acknowledged the power of nature, they also acknowledged that it had its limits when confronted by the unmodified power of God. In A Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job (1749), the poet Edward Young ‘quoted’ from God’s speech from the whirlwind, then appreciated as a paradigm of sublimity, in which God describes the experience of being the creator of the world, with particular reference to the ocean:

Who, stretching forth his sceptre o’er the deep,
Can that wide world in due subjection keep?
I broke the globe, I scoop’d its hollow side,
And did a bason for the floods provide;

I chain’d them with my word; the boiling sea,
Work’d up in tempests, hears My great decree;
‘Thus far thy floating tide shall be convey’d;
And here, O main! be thy proud billows stay’d.’

‘There is a very great air in all that precedes’, Young writes in response, ‘but this [excerpt] is signally sublime. We are struck with admiration to see the vast and ungovernable ocean receiving commands, and punctually obeying them; to find it like a manage-horse, raging, tossing, and foaming, but by the rule and direction of its master.’8 The ocean was, in Young’s estimation at least, the pre-eminent example via which the supremacy of God over nature could be evoked.

In his book Shipwreck with Spectator, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg explains mankind’s time-honoured fascination and unease with the sea and seafaring as follows:

Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage. The repertory of this nautical metaphorics of existence is very rich.9

In this context, the appropriateness of the storm-tossed ship as a political and social metaphor, from the Roman poet Horace’s ‘ship of state’ analogy onwards, needs no further explanation. And perhaps one can say with equal confidence that for obvious reasons a shipwreck was an event eminently suited to a sublime treatment. However, the relationship between shipwreck and the sublime needs to be seen in the context of the spectacle-spectatorship dynamic, just as the undoubted impact of a shipwreck needs to be recognised as first and foremost a historical event and human tragedy, even when it was presented, marketed and thus exploited as a consumer product.10

What was the relationship between the sublime – a complex and often contested term in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – and the role of spectatorship? For many commentators, the sublime was premised on the contemplation of powerful scenes or objects that aroused strong feelings of awe and terror in the spectator, primarily but not exclusively of natural phenomena (hence the centrality of the sea as a subject, and by association shipwreck). Thus the writer Joseph Addison, in his influential essay ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712), after listing the examples of ‘high rocks and precipices’, ‘a wide expanse of water’ and ‘huge heaps of mountains’, states that:

Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them.11

What is immediately apparent from Addison’s comments is that the viewer is not in any actual and immediate danger; there is a distance between the spectator and the scene or object, such that they are caught up sufficiently to feel overwhelmed but from a position of safety. Furthermore, there is pleasure in the process, as the writer and lexiographer Samuel Johnson put it, in the context of sublime language, from ‘sudden astonishment’ to ‘rational imagination’, when the mind relaxes in relief, precipitating what Addison had previously called ‘pleasing astonishment’ and Burke, ‘delightful horror’.12 The ‘sublime’ event is thus, by its very nature, a spectacle and the experience of that event a ‘spectator sport’. Evidently there is an important distinction to be made between ‘the object’ and ‘the subject’. Writing in the mid-1990s, the historian Jonathan Lamb noted the inappropriate use, as he saw it, of the term ‘sublime’ among some art historians. ‘Despite the frequent assertion to the contrary,’ he writes, ‘by eighteenth-century landscape specialists, there is no sublime environment, no phenomenon in nature that can claim an intrinsic part in these intensities, or pretend to be a cause or end of them’.13 The ‘crisis’, he asserts, must be within the subject (that is in the mind of the spectator). Lamb illustrates his point by quoting from Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790):

Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime ... All we can say is that the object lends itself to presentation of a sublimity discoverable in the mind. For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form.14

On these terms, we can perhaps appreciate the difficulty for artists and poets in manufacturing a sublime reaction in the spectator. Indeed, if the spectacle is to be persuasive, there is a crucial stage during the process of composing a ‘sublime’ work. The primary preoccupation of artists and poets in presenting shipwreck subjects is the attempt to immerse or transport the viewer out of their own time and space and into the description or composition. In Johann Joachim Ewald’s epigram (1755), entitled Der Sturm, the poet’s description ofthe distressed ship is clearly calculated to absorb the reader to such an extent that, when the textual flow is interrupted with the narrator’s presence – that is, with the introduction of ‘I’ – it effects an abrupt and thus powerful change of gear, what the critic Hans Blumenthal has called the ‘punchline’:

Suddenly it grows dark, the wind is howling loud,
And heaven, sky, and land appear a frightful jumble.
Toward the stars flies up the ship, then plunges down again,
Sails on washed by waves, with naught but ruin all around,
Here lightening, there thunder, the whole ether storming,
Swell towering up on swell, and cloud on cloud,
The ship is shattered, and I...nothing happened to me,
Because I only watched the storm from shore.15

That this sensation was crucial to experiencing The Raft of the Medusa is underlined by the lowering of the painting during the Paris Salon of 1819 at the request of Géricault himself, from a prominent but high position in the Salon Carré to one that encouraged a more intimate engagement with the canvas. Commenting on this significant change of hanging height, the painter Eugène Delacroix noted that, with the new position, the viewer’s foot was already in the water, concluding ‘Il faut l’avoir vu d’assez près, pour en sentir tout le mérite’ (it is necessary to have seen it close enough, to feel all its merits).16 That Géricault was not the first in this context to appreciate the optimum height from which to view a work of art is underlined by The Wreck of the Centaur by James Northcote, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784. Although the painting is now lost, its scale (3656 x 2438 mm) and composition is known through an engraving by Thomas Gaugain (fig.4), published in the same year, and its prominent hanging position in the Great Room at Somerset House via a watercolour by Edward Frances Burney (fig.5). The ominous presence of the ship, just visible in the top left corner, and the steep, upward tilt of the boat, when viewed from below (as Burney’s watercolour demonstrates) was surely calculated to exaggerate the sensation of being in the line of impact, from the path of the ship, the boat and the crashing waves.

Of course the sheer scale of the Raft of the Medusa (at seven metres long and five metres high), and of the over life-size figures represented, make the representation of human suffering more legible and thus more immediate and effective than in most marine painting or seascapes. After all, we can see the physical and emotional distress of the shipwrecked in Géricault’s composition, and Northcote’s, but this is miniaturised in Turner’s, and obscured in Vernet’s. As spectators, therefore, can we be absorbed with the human context of an event or scene, if we are distanced from the presence of human beings?

The relative merits of figurative and landscape formats in the spectacle-spectator configuration is perhaps most interesting and pressing in the context of sublime when we consider Edmund Burke’s emphasis in the Philosophical Enquiry on ‘pain’, ‘anguish’, ‘torment’ and ‘death’ as ‘productive of the sublime’, exciting the ‘passion’ of ‘self-preservation’:

The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime. The passions belonging to self-preservation are the strongest of all the passions.17

In general terms, the fact that it is a subject that encourages the spectator to imagine ‘pain and danger’ and ‘self-preservation’, ‘without being actually in such circumstances’ may well be why shipwreck, as a potentially life-threatening event, was suited to the sublime in all its various literary and artistic manifestations, and why it was so regularly adopted by artists planning works for public consumption. Interestingly, when the Raft of the Medusa was exhibited to visitors at the Egyptian Hall in London, the printed description made available was prefaced by an excerpt from ‘The Voyage’, from Robert Southey’s poem Madoc (1805), which explicitly evokes the spectacle-spectator dynamic described above, demonstrating the absorption of Burkean and other theoretical formulations of the sublime into the mainstream of British culture:

‘Tis pleasant, by the cheerful hearth, to hear
Of tempests and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo terror to delight us; ... but to hear
The roaring of the raging elements, ...
To know all human skill, all human strength,
Avail not, ... to look round, and only see
The mountain wave incumbent with its weight
Of bursting waters o’er the reeling bark, ...
O God, this is indeed a dreadful thing!
And he who hath endur’d the horror, once,
Of such an hour, doth never hear the storm
Howl round his home, but he remembers it,
And thinks upon the suffering mariner!18

As we shall see in Don Juan, Byron was similarly attentive to the potential of such devices to disrupt the experience of his readership for dramatic effect. In the visual arts, if we compare and contrast Claude-Joseph Vernet’s A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas 1773 (fig.2) with J.M.W. Turner’s The Shipwreck 1805 (fig.3, N00476), both works offer approximate evidence of the kind of dramatic effects and devices that have come to be expected of ‘sublime’ images, such as sharp contrasts in light and dark, battering winds, turbulent seas, buffeted ships, and struggling human beings. But what effect does the proximity of the rocky coastline (that is dry land as the sign of safety) to the viewing plane have on the spectators of the painting, as can been seen in Vernet’s composition, in contrast to its complete absence in Turner’s? In his painting the Raft of the Medusa, Géricault too was conscious of the spectacle-spectator dynamic, and sought to confuse, even problematise, this divide by ‘extending’ the edge of the raft out of the confines of the framed canvas and into the viewer’s plane. And given that many of the abandoned seamen are represented turning towards or facing the ‘horizon’ (that is, looking in the same direction as the viewer of the painting) the artist is clearly attempting to manipulate us into experiencing, if only temporarily, what they are experiencing. Have we now become participants on the raft?


Claude Joseph Vernet

A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea 1773

National Gallery, London

Photo © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence 2012

Claude Joseph Vernet

A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea 1773

Oil on canvas

1145 x 1635 mm

National Gallery, London

Photo © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence 2012


Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Shipwreck exhibited 1805

Tate N00476

Joseph Mallord William Turner1775–1851

The Shipwreck exhibited 1805

Oil paint on canvas

support: 1705 x 2416 mm; frame: 2085 x 2795 x 235 mm


Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856



Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote

The Wreck of the Centaur 1796

Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote

The Wreck of the Centaur 1796


517 x 625 mm

Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


Edward Francis Burney

West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts

© Trustees of the British Museum

Edward Francis Burney

West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts

Watercolour and pencil on paper

335 x 492 mm

© Trustees of the British Museum

Theodore Géricault’s , The Raft Of The Medusa (Scene Of Shipwreck), 1818 1819 Formal Analysis

Theodore Géricault's , The Raft of the Medusa (Scene of Shipwreck), 1818-1819

Formal Analysis

By D. McGhee

September 27, 2014

Submitted for Arts Appreciation 111

The Raft of the Medusa is a jaw-dropping composition by the French Romantic painter, Theodore Gericault. The 1818-1819, oil on canvas housed in Louvre, Paris is a staggering, mass (16 ft high and almost 24 ft wide) in size and proportion. This, his most famous painting, is a dramatic and horrifying true story about a 1816 shipwreck of the French naval warship Méduse off the western coast of Africa and its aftermath.

Right away it is clear to anyone who stands in front of this composition that the artist Géricault's intent was to depict a realistic visual of the ships abandoned crew who was forced to fend on their own aboard a makeshift raft by their aristocratic officers who took the lifeboats. Theodore Gericault's subjects were victims and cast offs because they were the low class immigrants of society and at the mercy of upper class societies political scheme's.

The large, well defined foreground, contains the crippled remains of a hastily constructed raft that is barely keeping its occupants afloat. Gericault's painting easily takes on a directional flow of desperation and emotional elation from the beginning. A collection of body parts scattered across the deck of the raft, and dead bodies intertwined amongst the living and the dying immediately grabs the viewers attention pulling it to the bottom of the canvas. An older man on the left sits staring back towards the audience with a haggard expression of disbelief as he holds on to a lifeless male body, resting against his leg. This with the arrangement of one of the characters lying half-submerged in the murky waters, directs the flow of attention to the middle of the canvas before the eye is quickly swept up towards the right side of the painting to where a group of men standing facing away from the audience pointing and waving in an attempt to flag a ship that is barely visible on the dimly lite horizon. The angled placement to the right makes the ship appear further away which not only creates a heightened sense of panic and despair for the survivors, but also keeps the audience guessing as to if the ship is going away or plans to come back and rescue the stranded sailors.

There is a lot of form in this painting starting with the ocean waves on the left side of the painting and around the survivors. Gericault chose to place all the sailors in one area of the raft, including the dead. This not only gives great emphasis to the true size of the raft but also automatically...

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