Friday, December 17, 2010

The History of Art (in 1 Painting)

A painting by Théodore Géricault in 1819 sums up centuries, if not millennia of art. In concept, this old painting is deadly similar to the viral 'history of dance in one video' (watch it if you haven't seen it), but it's pretty clear which came first (i.e. the painting, not the video). Although “Art History X” should help you discover that this doesn't matter—there's no competition or copyright, as art has always been eclectic.

The painting, called “The Raft of the Medusa”, is a historical piece, an interpretation of the events following a 1816 shipwreck—a barbaric struggle for life. You can read more about it here, although all you really need to know is that it was a tragedy (and that the French government's reaction was more than sub-par). More importantly, it's contribution to (and borrowing from) the history of art is easy to see even without seeing the painting. Try it! (If applicable.)

Classical male bodies depicted in “The Creation of Adam”,
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Michelangelo ca. 1511.
Prior to beginning his masterpiece, the French artist Géricault, with his passionately innovative scientific interest, studied his theme from many angles. Much like today's actors (or yesterday's), he visited morgues to get a clearer picture of what happens to the human body, flesh and skin under several extremes. Additionally, he observed how people at insane asylums behave, and why—what makes them tick (pun intended).

Géricault also observed many healthy and Classical human bodies, such as those on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo; as well as some of those who had survived the tragedy. Such an interest in Classical Greek style was typical from artists in the Romantic and Neoclassical period.

Dramatic lighting used to select subject-matter,
in “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio ca. 1600.
As for other, global artistic trademarks, Géricault also took the dramatic and selective lighting from Caravaggio of the Baroque period, as well as the composition of figures from Giotto. Additionally to the composition, he used monochromatic tones throughout the painting, taking away from the emphasis on color and thus reducing any hint of dynamism or joy.

The considerably large painting also serves as a news reportage on government failure – presented through a strong medium of social critique, as we all know what they say about pictures and words. It is a clear representation of how Géricault felt about this incident, as we are visually presented with a social commentary that has lasted through the ages (unlike many things in history).

Moreover, the layout of the painting can be closely correlated to the “Death of General Wolfe” by Benjamin West in 1771, as well as a similarity of mood and setting like in the painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Copley in the same period. Moreover, there is a (somewhat theoretical) belief that the skies of the painting were altered after Géricault had seen the exhibitions of British landscape specialists Constable & Turner.

Look at those skies! Dramatic clouds and lighting in Constable's “Wivenhoe Park”,
and Turner's “Junction of the Thames”, “Rotterdam Ferry-Boat” and “Venice”.

Géricault's work consists of many other top-of-the-range components, such as shading of Leonardo da Vinci exemplified in his “Madonna of the Rocks”, it is a well-appointed collection of the most typecast elements from the Baroque. Personally, I think it is the best representation of the main emotions evoked around the dreadful events, and is truly and luxuriously eclectic. So finally, here it is:

“Le Radeau de la Méduse” by T. Géricault. See it at the Louvre in Paris.

Overall, this single painting covers so many periods of art that it's aptly identified as 'Art History 101' by artist and pedagogue Paula Benveniste.

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