The Raft of the Medusa  

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The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by  Théodore Géricault
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The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Théodore Géricault

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19, Le Radeau de la Méduse) is a painting by the French painter Théodore Géricault, and one of the icons of French Romanticism. An extremely large painting (491 × 717 cm), it was highly controversial at its first appearance in the Salon of 1819, attracting passionate critical acclaim and condemnation. The painting depicts the desperate survivors of the French ship Medusa, which gained notoriety when it struck the coast of Senegal in 1816, and their first moment of apparent rescue. Much of the controverse was sparkled because of the survivors of the sinking of ship had resorted to cannibalism after four days adrift on a raft.

The painting was a political statement – the incompetent captain was an inexperienced but politically sound anti-Bonapartist – and an artistic achievement that galvanized romantic painting and led to a break from the neoclassical style. The work was realized on the epic scale of a history painting, yet was based on a current news story. The unblemished musculature of the central figure, waving to the supposed rescue ship, is reminiscent of the neoclassical, but the painting is broadly romantic. The naturalism of light and shadow, authenticity of the haggard bodies, and emotional character of the composition, differentiate it from neoclassical austerity. The Raft of the Medusa was a further departure from earlier works because it depicted contemporary events with ordinary and unheroic figures, rather than religious or classical themes. However the ragged state of the figures' clothes means that the "unromantic" nature of modern dress was an issue that could be largely bypassed.

Impressed by accounts of the shipwreck, which had received huge publicity, the 25-year-old artist Théodore Géricault decided to make a painting based on the incident and contacted the authors of published accounts in 1818. In order to make his Raft of the Medusa as realistic as possible, Géricault made sketches of bodies in the morgue of the Hospital Beaujon. The painting depicts a moment recounted by one of the survivors: prior to their rescue, the passengers saw a ship on the horizon, which they tried to signal (it can be seen in the upper right of the painting). It disappeared, and in the words of one of the surviving crew members, "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound dispondency [sic] and grief" (Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816). The ship, the Argus, reappeared two hours later and rescued those who remained.

After by the hostile reception of his Medusa in France, Géricault went to London in 1820, after having his picture shipped to England, where a traveling showman exhibited it in several towns.

Géricault used friends as models, notably the painter Eugène Delacroix as the figure in the foreground with his face turned downward and arms outstretched.

A bronze bas-relief of the painting adorns Géricault's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The painting was bought by the Louvre from his heirs after the artist's death in 1824.

Background

In June 1816, the French frigate Méduse departed from Rochefort, bound for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. She headed a convoy of three other ships: the storeship Loire, the brig Argus and the corvette Écho. Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys had been appointed captain of the frigate despite having scarcely sailed in 20 years. The frigate's mission was to accept the British return of Senegal under the terms of France's acceptance of the Peace of Paris. The appointed French governor of Senegal, Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, and his wife Reine Schmaltz were among the passengers.

In an effort to make good time, the Méduse overtook the other ships, but due to its speed it drifted Template:Convert off course. On July 2, it ran aground on a sandbank off the West African coast, near today's Mauritania. The collision was widely blamed on the incompetence of De Chaumereys, a returned émigré who lacked experience and ability, but had been granted his commission as a result of an act of political preferment. Efforts to free the ship failed, so, on July 5, the frightened passengers and crew started an attempt to travel the Template:Convert to the African coast in the frigate's six boats. Although the Méduse was carrying 400 people, including 160 crew, there was space for only about 250 in the boats. The remainder of the ship's complement—at least 146 men and one woman—were piled onto a hastily-built raft, that partially submerged once it was loaded. Seventeen crew members opted to stay aboard the grounded Méduse. The captain and crew aboard the other boats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few miles the raft was turned loose. For sustenance the crew of the raft had only a bag of ship's biscuit (consumed on the first day), two casks of water (lost overboard during fighting) and a few casks of wine.

According to critic Jonathan Miles, the raft carried the survivors "to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest." After 13 days, on July 17, 1816, the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance—no particular search effort was made by the French for the raft. By this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, died of starvation, or thrown themselves into the sea in despair. The incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French monarchy, only recently restored to power after Napoleon's defeat in 1815.



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