The 1818-1819 Gericault painting is, frankly, one of the most amazing pieces of art ever. That’s in my humble opinion, at least. The French artist painted it when he was only 27, not to mention the extensive studies of corpses, weather, and ship mechanics that went into it.
I was talking to my favorite professor today about this very painting. He had an interesting theory that I think I might just buy into. Notice the hunched over figure on the left side of the raft, holding a semi-nude corpse. My professor thinks that this man is a stand in of sorts for the audience. His thoughtful, downcast expression is a mirror for the likely reaction of the viewer to this tumultuous painting.
A fascinating thing in light of this theory is that the painting is unbalanced. If the side of our ponderous man is the “despair” side of the work, than the other portion of the raft is the “hope” side. The hope side has no figure to relate to the audience, since all the figures are turned away in actions of dramatic joy or frenzy in seeing the rescue ship far on the horizon.
If Gericault was making the case for a life of equal hope and despair, as all people are likely to have, wouldn’t he have painted a hopeful figure for his viewers to connect to? It seems like the artist is saying, by painting the group of figures turned away towards the distant ship, that hope and joy are fleeting. The “anchor” figure, though, represents that despair and melancholy thoughtfulness are permanent.
My professor also thinks this dichotomy between hope and despair works for innocence and guilt. The hopeful figures are guilelessly happy for their return to civilization, while the seated man, surrounded by the dead and dying, will be forever plagued by guilt and remorse over what was lost.
Finally, my professor wondered if it’s healthy for me to be so entranced by art that deals with death. Truth be told, it might not be, but if thoughts of death and general unpleasantness keeps bringing me back to some of the best paintings in art history, than I’m sticking with Gericault.