With the onset of the French Revolution came the idea of making artwork for the public. Work was now able to be created as engaging political and social commentaries. For the first time, artwork created an influence rather than simply illustrating a preexisting one. Both Jean Louis David’s work Oath of the Horatii and Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa exemplify this. David’s Oath of the Horatii, painted in 1794, was one of the first paintings that broke from the idea of illustration and provided ideals that helped influence the public.
The scene is of three brothers swearing an oath to their father before they are sent to battle, a story from a Roman play. The painting added to the public’s tension that came with the beginning of the French Revolution by instilling ideas of sacrifice for the protection of the state. The painting also created ideals and gave more power to artists, who suddenly found themselves holding a more influential social position.
The original scene was supposed to depict the part of the play in which the surviving brother comes home to find his sister mourning the death of her husband, whom he had fought in opposition to.
David, however, in a type of declaration of independence, decided not to paint this scene but rather to create his own event that distilled the thematic of the play. This was a monumental move, for it suggested that painting could convey ideas without depending on text. Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa was also a history painting that intended to spark the interest of the public. The image, recalled from a contemporary scandal, depicts survivors of a post-Napoleonic shipwreck who spot a vessel in the distance.
The painting is one of confrontation against the newly restored French Monarchy, who had fired all military personnel affiliated with Napoleon and gave jobs (such as the ship’s captain) to men with little or no experience. When the ship was grounded off the coast of West Africa, there were not enough life boats and many were left to make a raft in an attempt to save themselves. Subjected to disease and starvation, the raft members resorted to killing the weak and cannibalizing their flesh.
Instead of painting a scene depicting these horrors, Gericault decided to show a moment of hope in which a potential rescuer is spotted and there is a collaborative effort to wave the ship down. Gericault chose this moment to portray the raft members as victims whom the public could sympathize with. This helped fulfill his intentions of connecting this disaster and the despair that spawned from it with the public. Gericault suggested the public was likewise a victim of the wrongful political system. On the lower left part of the canvas, the sprawled anguished bodies emanate feelings of despair.
Emotions ascend from the dying figures to the living, hopeful figures in the upper right. This ascension illustrates Gericault’s conviction that while those low on the political hierarchy may be oppressed, strength will spawn from hope and unity. David and Gericault used several similar methods to fulfill their goals of making their works of art “public” and “engaging”. Firstly, David painted the work on a roughly 10. 7’x14. 2’ canvas, a much larger scale than was asked for. David once again defied the wishes of the Art Academy and established his own independence as an artist.
Gericault, who did not have a commissioner, also exemplified the idea of the artist’s independence by funding his own massive 16’x23. 5’ painting. This was rarely seen in this time, especially for a work of that size. Creating such a large scale painting was a risk as the artist had no guarantee of making his money back. Making an oversized painting allowed it to be accessible and visible to everyone, and helped capture the viewer and bring them into the scene. It also gave the impression that the statements conveyed in the painting were so important that the painting had to be big in order to support them.
As for the imagery, the shallow, horizontal and simplified composition of The Oath of the Horatii gave way to the theatrical qualities of the piece. This helped to provide a bridge into the neoclassical style David became so well-known for. A theatrical tone is also seen in Raft of the Medusa, created by dramatic poses and expressions. This drama is seen in those of anguish and despair toward the bottom left of the painting and the contrasting unified mass of figures in the upper right who exude newly found hope and strength. This contrast heightens the emotional extremes and helps provoke emotional reactions in the viewer.
This type of contrast can also be seen in the Oath of the Horatii between the strength of the rigid, emotionless, and hardened male figures on the left of the frame and the softness of the huddled, delicate, and mourning female figures grouped on the right. For both works, the manifestation of a heroic male nude is seen. For David, this figure is the foremost Horatii brother. He is the only brother who carries a long spear and unlike his two brothers he swears not with his left hand, but with his right. This is an indication that this brother would be the lone survivor, suggesting this figure is the one of most importance and strength.
The hero is signified by his physique, but also by a selective use of color. The brother wears a bold color of red which mimics the color worn by his father, further proving that the soldier is ultimately united with the state. The color red also historically suggests an area of importance in artwork. Gericault also used color to single out the heroic male figure who is the pinnacle of the emotional surge of figures on the right of the raft. The man contrasts the other members of the raft by his strength and posture as well as his skin color, which is also seen as a remark on race.
The heroic male figure in the Raft of the Medusa differs from that in the Oath of the Horatii. David’s figure pushes the classical idea of the Hero, while Gericault’s signifies the culmination of the efforts of several men, who were all victims of the unjust new political structure. Paired with the muted colors, dramatic composition, and use of a contemporary event rather than a recollection from literature, the separation from the idea of a single hero helped the Raft of the Medusa become an archetype for the style of Romanticism.
This new style also helped create a mix of reactions from viewers, who were used to the calm, clear, austere and patriotic images of the Neoclassical. The Oath of the Horatii epitomizes this Neoclassical style, just as the Raft of the Medusa does Romanticism. Both Jean Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii and Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa were created as “public” works of art, meant to engage and influence the members of the French society. The artists both achieved their goals of independently creating images that acted upon current political and social issues.
Though there were differences, many of their approaches and techniques paralleled each other’s. These works not only influenced political and social movements but also served as pivotal developments in the art world. They helped create new movements and styles as well as provide inspiration for various other artists and political motivators. The successful fulfillment of the goals set by both Gericault and David could not have been achieved had it not been for the risks and difficult decisions made by the artists.
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