Romanticism Paintings Analysis: The Raft of Medusa and Liberty Leading the People

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I will be focusing on romanticism that is based on emotions and sublimity. I will be displaying the features of romantic art by analysing two paintings from the 19th century. These are The Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault (1819; Louvre Museum, Paris), oil on canvas and Liberty leading the people by Eugene Delacroix (1830; Louvre Museum, Paris), oil on canvas. Throughout I will be giving examples of how these two paintings reflect romanticism through the different techniques exhibited. Allowing a better understanding of what is required for a painting to be considered romantic.

Both paintings revolve around romantic subject matters as they depict human misery and real incidents. The Raft of Medusa is a still life painting based on a French ship (the Medusa), shipwrecking, leaving 15 of its saviours stranded on a raft for 13 days. The painting portrays the dead and surviving on the raft, trying to get the attention of a ship in the distance to rescues them. Presenting hope and despair, providing us with a disturbing almost accurate account. Liberty Leading the People’s is also a still life French revolution snapshot, with a liberty figure leading the people. The subject matter can emphasize the romantic nature due to romanticism largely being a response to political social situations i.e. The French Revolution. Both represent romanticism as it focuses on conveying emotion and allowing for drama to be expressed. 

The Raft of Medusa’s, use of open space is to allow the huge waves in the background to be prominent. Showing the force of the sea and how it seems to be overpowering the raft, displaying the power of nature compared to man. This is an example of sublime, creating an experience of terror and danger through nature. Being a key part of romanticism as they like to focus on showing the relationship between nature and man. The use of negative space within Liberty Leading the People, is important as there is a lot of positive space used however the negative space allows for buildings to be seen in the background. Indicating the scene also takes place outdoors (within nature). The use of positive space and very little open space helps to create a sense of disarray, reflecting the nature/ emotions of each painting’s subject matter.

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The composition of both paintings is similar in creating a sense of romanticism. As within The Raft of Medusa, the composition shows the bodies of the suffering/dead stacked upon one another, creating a pyramid from which the survivors can rise and dramatically reach out from. This created an optimistic stance, that may appear stable but with any counter movement the composition would be destabilized, helping highlight the treacherous situation they are in. This emphasises the sense of hope they feel by seeing the boat but also despair due to the boat being so far away. An important feature to mention within this painting is the size. As the painting's figures are life-size, and thus emphasising on the dramatics, as it appears more lifelike. The composition within Liberty Leading the People is similar as at the foreground of the painting lays the dead or injured. While above those are figures and liberty standing with arms rising upwards in a victorious stance. This allows viewers to experience the dominance of Liberty who boldly strides forward and enhances the drama of the action. Demonstrating the feeling of empathy for the dead lying across the ground. While having a strong sense of courage with those rising upwards, enhancing the drama romanticism exemplifies. 

The colours used are those that would typically be seen in a romanticism painting as they are expressive. The Raft of Medusa's palette consists of dull earthy tones and overall the painting is dark, giving it a sombre look. This is due to the use of the dark brown shades seen on the raft and the murky blue colour of the sea, allowing it to appear dangerous and fearful. The dark reds were used to add distress to the piece due to it resembling blood and Symbolising danger; showcasing their endangerment. The skin tones of most figures are extremely white and sickly, expressing their suffering. Allowing the painting to appear shocking and miserable, due to colours being used to express the horror of the situation. It helps to enhance the romanticism style, due to the narrative of human suffering often being very clear, as it is in this piece. 

Delacroix believed colours should reflect the mood of the subject in a painting, as his use of colour is not descriptive but emotive and expressive. This is demonstrated through Delacroix’s use of grey and brown tones, exhibited in the gun smoke clouds, increasing the drama by creating a feeling of turmoil. The skin tones of the dead appearing grey and paler than those standing upright, increasing the gloomy effect. It is also important to notice liberty is in similar coloured clothing as other figures, illustrating she is fighting among the people, allowing for a bond of strength. The most contrasting colours are from the French tricolour: red, white, and blue. This colour scheme is repeated on some of the other figures clothing standing out against the more neutral tones. It is the most important as it is used in an iconographic way to emphasise patriotic symbolism, expressing freedom. Overall, the colours have a realistic theme due to the subject expressed, helping us understand the need for an earthy palette. Demonstrating the romantic nature as colours are being used expressively. 

The use of light is extreme within The Raft of Medusa. Due to a lot of contrast between the light and dark to help create a depressing effect. Making it appear dramatic, like that of a Baroque painting. Demonstrated through the Intense use of chiaroscuro. It was also used to sculpt the figures, making them appear more realistic and three dimensional. The darkness of the sea creates a feeling of danger, once again displaying the power of nature against man. Liberty Leading the People however is rather lightly lit although, there is extra emphasis on liberty herself, with the light upon her the brightest. This shows her importance as the central figure leading the people, creating a sense of triumph. The darkness used in the background crowd, adds to the dramatics of the scene, allowing us to see the anarchy of the revolution.

In conclusion both The Raft of Medusa and Liberty Leading the People reflect the style romanticism. Through the paintings use of expressing strong feelings. Evident through Baudelaire saying that romanticism was ‘a way of feeling'., which the paintings by Delacroix and Géricault create. The Raft of Medusa also holds a major quality of romanticism, through it emphasising the connection between man and nature. Each of the subject matters is also important in defining romanticism as they are not classical paintings but derive from real life. Created to ‘express the constant preoccupations of the human spirit’. This overall defines them as romantic art proven through the elements discussed throughout. 

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