The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault called it Scène de Naufrage, or Scene of Shipwreck, that we know today as The Raft of the Medusa. But consider this: he may never have painted this masterpiece if there had been a mouse.  

La Méduse, the French frigate, one summer day in 1816, at the hands of its incompetent sea captain, crashed and started to break apart as it was nearing the coast of western Africa where its passengers—soldiers and emigrants—were headed to colonize Senegal. While the captain and the other higher-ups just happened to snatch the few available lifeboats, thereby saving their own skin, one hundred and fifty were herded onto a quickly hewn raft made of planks that measured no larger than seven meters by twenty meters, oar-less and rudderless. Needless to say those closest to the edge of the raft were tossed into the seas and drowned—a fate that could have been considered kind compared with what took place over the following week. Hysteria mushroomed into mutiny, mutiny into murder and cannibalism, humans sacrificing humans, the survival of the fittest writ large. By the end of the seventh day, only fifteen of the one hundred and fifty had survived. Six days later rescue was made with ten surviving long enough to talk about the horrors, and two of them decided to do what we do today, sit down and write a tell-all. Published little more than a year later, the story they told captured the headlines, and captured Géricault’s attention.

Théodore Géricault, perhaps even more than Eugéne Delacroix (previous post), moved beyond the French Academy and their favorite themes; he gave birth to a new genre distinct from the allegorical subjects of classicism and religion, and society portraits. He sought out subject matter that was as dramatic as it was important, he wanted to apply lessons of the Old Masters to a contemporary event: the Medusa’s nightmare seemed perfectly suited. Géricault sat with the two authors, the survivors, and listened to their tale; and one passenger, one live model, at a time—Delacroix posed for the man facedown in the center foreground—he assiduously reconstructed the scene on the raft when rescue was near. The painting’s debut in July 1819, however, left him depressed. Although its reception at the Academy’s Salon created the buzz he had desired and won the gold medal, the Louvre didn’t purchase the work for their national collection and the viewers and the critics were divided. Some of them cried that the scene wasn’t heroic, that it was devoid of colors, that it was too theatrical and definitely grotesque, and the classicists harrumphed any sense of “ideal beauty” was gone. But if the painting had never been painted, Art History would have taken a huge tumble off the cliff: all the great movements that followed, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and so forth, would have had a hard time being born. And what about the mouse…

Géricault, with months of research and sketching behind him and the Salon in front of him, sequestered himself in his studio for nine months to paint the Raft of the Medusa, “his existence became one of rigorous monastic simplicity.”[1] Silence was a must. He said, “even the scuffling of a mouse could stop him working.”

[1] Rupert Christiansen, The Victorian Visitors: 
Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain

(image reproduced for non-commercial use only)

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