My Daily Art Display today features one of the most moving paintings I have come across and what makes it even more remarkable is that it is based on a true story. The massive oil on canvas painting is entitled The Raft of Medusa and was painted by the French Romantic painter, Théodore Géricault in 1819. Before I look at the painting let me go through the actual events which this painting is based upon.
The story begins on June 17, 1816 with the new Bourbon government of France dispatching the frigates Medusa, Loire and Echo and the brig Argus to officially receive the British handover of the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal to France. The British who having helped to re-establish the French monarchy, wanted to demonstrate their support for Louis XVIII, and decided to hand over to him this strategic trading port on the West African coast. The French naval frigate, Medusa was to carry 365 crew and passengers, including the Senegal’s governor-designate, Colonel Julien-Désire Schmaltz, from Port de Rochefort on the island of Aix on France’s west coast, to Senegal via Tenerife.
The captain of the Medusa was Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys, who at the age of 53 had spent most of his career behind a desk at customs offices and had never been in command of a ship, in fact had hardly sailed on a ship for twenty years. However, the old adage “it’s who you know and not what you know” was applicable in his being put in command of the fleet as he had many Royalist connections. The governor-designate Schmaltz wanted to reach St Louis as soon as possible and persuaded the captain to set a course close to the shore line in order to save time. Things went badly almost from the start of the voyage when a young cabin boy was lost over the side. Captain Chaumereys also had problems with both his passengers and crew alike, spending long periods arguing with them
The Medusa was a fast vessel and in fact much faster than the other vessels in the group and soon pulled ahead of them which was to be a contributing factor in the forthcoming disaster and terrible loss of life. On July 2nd, for some reason, whether due to poor navigation skills or lack of attention the Medusa, was many miles off course and ran aground on the Arguin Banks, which lie off the west coast of Mauritania, despite perfect weather conditions and calm seas. The grounding ripped a hole in the hull of the Medusa and after surveying the damage it was deemed un-repairable and terminal. Couple this factor along with deteriorating weather conditions and the crew had no choice but to abandon the vessel. The Medusa had some lifeboats but they would hold only 150 people and so it was decided to construct a raft to house the rest
The crew then set to work making a raft from parts of the Medusa’s decking and masts. When completed the raft measured 65 feet by 23 feet and was towed behind two of the ship’s lifeboats. In all, one hundred and fifty people, including one woman, boarded the raft. However with such weight the raft became almost submerged and it was decided to jettison some of the food. After doing this the deck of the raft settled in the water with what they believed to be a suitable clearance above the sea surface. The lifeboats towing their raft set off from the crippled Medusa but the weight of the raft was becoming problematic. The only propulsion of this raft was from the rowing power of the men in the lifeboats which was towing it,as the raft had no oars, no sails and no navigational aids.
For some unknown reason, whether it be that the people on the raft decided that their lives would be safer if they disengaged from the lifeboats or whether those in the lifeboat believed that the raft was jeopardising their safety, the towing line was severed and the raft was set free, some four miles off the coast of Mauretania. By the second day, three of the passengers had committed suicide and that following night the store of rum aboard the raft was broached and in a drunken insurrection by the soldiers against their officers, mayhem ensued. By daylight the next day the number of people alive on the raft had more than halved to sixty. Food had run out and the survivors resorted to eating the corpses.
On July 1th 1816, after 13 days adrift, the raft by pure chance was rescued by the Argus, as no specific search effort was made by the French for the raft. At this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, Some had died of starvation, and some had thrown themselves into the sea in despair.
The whole episode was a disaster, not only to those who sailed on the Medusa but for the French government and when the ship’s surgeon Savigny submitted a report on the incident, it was leaked to an anti-government newspaper, the Journal des débats, which caused outrage. The French government had tried hard to suppress the details. The French nation was horrified. The event became an international scandal, partly because of the human disaster and partly because the disaster was generally attributed to the incompetence of the French captain, whom people believed was acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy. However in reality, King Louis XVIII had no say in the captain’s appointment, since, then as now, monarchs were not directly involved in appointments made to vessels like a naval frigate. Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed.
This painting by Géricault was his first major work of art and is now housed in the Louvre in Paris. What strikes you first when you stand in front of this painting is its enormous size, measuring 16 feet by 24 feet. We, the viewers, are dwarfed by its enormity, which gives the painting more power. Strangely enough nobody commissioned the work but the artist believed that the incident he was portraying would generate great interest from the public and in so doing he believed his career would take off. Géricault spent much time in preparing for this painting doing numerous sketches. He interviewed the ship’s doctor, Henri Savigny and the ship’s geographer, Alexander Corréard and he even constructed a detailed scale model of the raft. He would have models pose on his constructed raft . His friend, the artist Delacroix, modelled for the figure in the foreground, with face turned downward and one arm outstretched. His young assistant Louis-Alexis Jamar modelled nude for the dead man in the foreground, who is about to slip into the sea. In his desire to depict accurately the bodies of the survivors and the dead he made many visits to morgues and hospitals noting details with regards the texture and colouring of flesh on live bodies and corpses. Géricault had been correct in his assessment that the painting would prove popular if somewhat controversial. It appeared in the 1819 Paris Salon and for the artist it launched his career and, although it was partly a history painting, it was looked upon as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in French painting.
The painting portrays the moment in time when the survivors on board the raft spot the approaching ship, Argus, which can just be seen on the whitened horizon. It is at this very point in time that the survivors realise that they are about to be rescued. An African crewman, said to be Jean Charles, can be seen standing on a cask waiving his shirt to attract the crew of the Argus. This portrayal of a negro at the pinnacle of the painting was probably down to Géricault’s abolitionist’s sympathies. The majority of the figures depicted in this enormous painting are life-size and the bodies of the men in the foreground are almost twice life-size. Their closeness to the edge of the canvas makes us almost believe we are just a step away from the raft itself. The raft has suffered from the battering it endured in the rough seas and is barely afloat. The painting is dark and sombre which Géricault chose to suggest the torment and agony of the survivors.
In some ways it is an idealised painting as in actuality, there are more people shown on the raft than were found by the Argus and at the time of the rescue of the castaways, the sea was recorded as being calm and the weather settled. However to add feeling to the painting he has allowed the seas to be whipped up high in a frenzy of surf under blackened storm clouds. One must also query the fact that some of the men seem so “muscled” and somewhat healthy despite having starved for such a length of time and barely kept alive. It is a combination of history painting, recording the story of the men’s plight and a painting of the Romanticism genre.
There is a moody darkness about the painting. There is a strong diagonal surge from the bottom left of the painting to the top right. Our eyes move along the diagonal from viewing the despondent man with his head in hand in the bottom left to the man arm waving his shirt in the upper right. As we stare in disbelief at the scene in front of us, we sympathise with the plight of these men.
Géricault must have been fully aware when he submitted the work to the Paris Salon that it would prove controversial as the demise of the Medusa and terrible loss of life was blamed on the Bourbon government and so whether the painting was acclaimed or condemned depended a a great deal on whether the viewer was pro or anti Bourbon.