The Romantic period of art history is one of my absolute favorites. And by “Romantic,” with a capital “R,” which isn’t all lovey-dovey--it’s not like when we say a movie is romantic, for example. It’s a movement that entranced Europe beginning with the late 18th century and onward through the mid-to-late 19th century, and wasn’t just limited to visual art, but music, poetry, fiction, and theater, too. In art, it took the form of a glorification of strong emotion and the praise of the natural world-- so think awe-inspiring mountains, that kind of thing. Feelings reigned supreme. But with the Romantics, it wasn’t only good, positive feelings that were considered worthy-- equally, it was the feelings of horror, of anger, of fear that drove creators. And one of the most iconic works of art from the Romantic period in France generated all these feelings and more--and caused people to take sides in some extremely huge topics of the day.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our ongoing series where we will be dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, focusing on a huge, ambitious painting of a real-life tragedy that became a symbol of so much in early 19th century France: Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
There’s a lot to get into about Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, not the least of which is the inspiration behind this work of art. Because this isn’t something that just sprang from the artist’s imagination-- it’s based on a terrible and terrifying real-life event: the naval disaster of a French vessel called the Medusa, which crashed spectacularly on July 2nd, 1816. The ship, carrying approximately 400 passengers, ran aground a sandbank off of present-day Mauritania as it traveled en route to Senegal, which was then established as a French colony. When the vessel wrecked on that sandbank, the majority of the passengers were able to escape on lifeboats, but not all of them-- they were not equipped, like boats today, for example, to account for the safety of every single person. And with that, 150 people were left behind. But they weren’t going to take it lying down, as it were. The remaining crewmen opted to build a raft from the leftover wreckage, with the intention that the raft would be towed to safety behind the lifeboats, but it turned out that it wasn’t reasonable or even physically possible. And so, with nary a thought, the captain of the Medusa, one Viscount Chaumareys, made the decision to cut off the raft from the lifeboats and left it adrift at sea. Imagine the horror of this scene-- 150 people, trying to survive on scraps of wood and with whatever they had scavenged from their sinking vessel. It was a nightmare come to life.
But the nightmare of the abandonment of the Medusa’s life raft was only the beginning, and doesn’t even compare to the nightmare of what happened next. Over a period of thirteen seemingly interminable days, these 150 passengers dwindled down, perishing at sea due to starvation, dehydration, exposure, and desperation for resources. Such circumstances meant that fighting amongst the survivors became dire-- struggling for shares of meager food and wine, the unimaginable occurred: crew members resorted to murder, pushing weaker passengers overboard, and--even more horrifying--some quickly resorted to cannibalism in order to provide for themselves in any way possible. After thirteen days, 90% of those on the raft had perished. Only 15 people remained when the British brig, the Argus, came upon the raft and rescued them, taking them back to Senegal to recover-- but only seven of them did. Once these heartiest of survivors were deemed fit enough to return to France, they had to do so with the support of the British Navy, because France didn’t supply any aid. Imagine that--they’ve been through an insane sea disaster and their own country didn’t, or wouldn’t, assist them.
As if that wasn’t heartless enough, upon their return to France, the survivors of the so-called Raft of the Medusa were forced to sign affidavits recusing the captain and the French Crown, headed by post-Napoleonic Bourbon king Louis the 18th, from responsibility for the events that lead to the demise of nearly 150 people. It was obvious to all involved that the captain’s incompetence was the catalyst of the shipwreck when the Medusa hit the sandbar, an irresponsibility heightened when he opted to sever the raft from the lifeboats-- but to admit all this meant that France itself--and the king-- was at fault for employing him. It seems like the survivors were either railroaded into signing, or perhaps they were just in too much pain or shock to resist, but all of them-- except for two--signed the documents. But what these remaining two survivors did later made a big difference. Together, they wrote a book about their first hand experience on the raft, called The Sinking of the Frigate Medusa and published in 1817-- and most of the information we have today about the shipwreck and the experiences of the survivors comes from this book. The crown quickly attempted to censor the authors but the book only became more popular-- and even went through five editions before 1821 and was also translated into several languages, including English. People were obsessed with this story-- it was kinda like the Titanic of its day, except, you know, with cannibalism and anti-government sentiment thrown in. Readers were appalled that something like this could even happen--and their collective fury only grew when it came to light that Captain Chaumareys, though given a guilty sentence for incompetency, was acquitted of charges of abandoning his crew and the raft itself. It was in the midst of the height of the Medusa controversy that a young, talented Romantic painter found himself moved to create what would become his greatest work of art.
Theodore Gericault was born in 1791 in the town of Rouen, about 70 miles northwest of Paris as the crow flies and one with an impressive history of its own, being the location of the execution of Saint Joan of Arc. He received an art apprenticeship while still a young teenager, but felt stifled by the traditional educational setup, and so by 1810 he had already abandoned schooling and sought his own way, mainly by opting to copy from masterworks at the Louvre instead. He had come into being as the height of the Neoclassical movement was dying down, and he didn’t really love the whole ancient-world inspiration, all stoic scenes and stony faces. He wanted drama. He loved action. And he found it, much of the time, in painting horses and cavalries, all muscle and speed. But when the news of the Medusa disaster struck, so did Gericault’s inspiration.
It might be easy for us to call Theodore Gericault an opportunist, someone who is capitalizing on the biggest controversy at the moment, and who knows-- that may have been true. But Gericault’s painting wasn’t slapdash, or something he threw together quickly for attention. He took nearly two years to complete it, and painstakingly prepared every step of the way, going to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of his portrayal. His preparatory sketches are numerous, as he charted out the position of bodies. He visited hospitals and morgues so that he could accurately depict the colors, textures, and stiffness of dying and deceased flesh. He even established his studio across the street from one of these hospitals, simply to allow himself ease of access. And I would say that he probably got a little too relaxed with the whole process, because in his obsession with getting the details right, he was known to casually bring severed limbs back to his studio to study and sketch every stage of decay. And he didn’t stop there. His most grotesque experiment involved a severed head procured from a local asylum, which he kept on the roof of his studio for two weeks to witness its transformation in the sun and the elements. I mean, there’s commitment to your job, and then there’s COMMITMENT to your job, amirite?
But at least it wasn’t all morose and gross while Gericault made his preparations. He also made connections with two of the raft’s survivors, painstakingly interviewing them and running his preparatory drawings by them to get their seal of approval. Not only that, but he worked with a carpenter to construct an detailed scale model of the Medusa before it ran aground-- a model of the ship, not the raft-- and the ship doesn’t even appear in the final composition. He did the same with the raft, but still. You see where we’re going here. From posing models as dead bodies to, well, examining lots of dead bodies themselves, and to making several trips to the English Channel to observe the color and appearance of waves breaking in the midst of a storm-- I think we can all agree that Theodore Gericault went above and beyond in creating this work of art. And you know what? It totally paid off.
Coming up next, a deep dive into Gericault’s shocking masterpiece, right after this break.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
Let’s take a closer look at The Raft of the Medusa, which Gericault finally completed in 1819, three years after the Medusa disaster. First thing that is often noted is that the scene is dark-- and I mean that not only in subject matter. This painting is defined almost entirely by blacks, grays, and browns, with the occasional pop of red against a roiling teal and navy sea. The drama of nature-- its danger-- is on full display here, with white-capped waves threatening to overtake the raft and its inhabitants. There are a little less than two dozen individuals delineated in Gericault’s composition, and they range the gamut between hopeful and despairing and, well-- dead and alive. This is part of the horror of the work of art-- Gericault’s raft is littered with pale corpses, and the artist makes sure that your eye goes straight to them. You can’t look away. He doesn’t want you to look away. But when your eye does move across the crowded canvas, you see them-- an old man gripping his son’s lifeless body, with that thousand-yard stare of grief and denial. Another man, behind him, clawing his head in the throes of madness. Other grasping onto each other in hope and determination-or not-- and after all of these years, I can’t tell if the redheaded figure farthest to the right has a man draped across his backside because that man has collapsed, or if that man is in the process of biting him-- a reminder of the cannibalism rampant aboard the raft. But besides the dead, your eye is drawn precisely to one single figure, at the apex of a pyramid just right of the center of the painting. Standing with a foot propped up on a barrel, shirtless, and waving a red and white strip of fabric, he heroically signals off to the very edge of the horizon, where the Argus--that British rescue ship-- is barely made visible to us. And let me fill you in on something-- I’ve been looking at this painting for nigh on twenty years now, and I always assumed that this represented the moment where the Argus sees the raft, the moment right before rescue. But in fact, I’ve just learned, in the research for writing this episode, that it isn’t that moment at all. Instead, it’s meant to represent something dark instead of hopeful. The Argus originally passed near the raft in the distance while on its way to Senegal--and the crew of the Argus never realized it. They were so close at that moment to being rescued. But they weren’t. So, this beckoning and waving seen in Gericault’s image is all for naught. The Argus would eventually swing back around-- and only then would they stumble upon the raft-- but in the meantime, more aboard the raft would perish. I always thought that this painting was a bright moment at the end of a nightmare. Now I know it is a symbol of false hope-- which makes it all the more devastating.
The Raft of the Medusa was first exhibited at the 1819 Paris Salon, under the title Scene de Naufrage or Shipwreck Scene, in order to soften any controversy that might have swirled around it, given the touchy blame-game about the disaster in the first place. And in an ideal world, this would have been a really good idea-- especially because the Salon itself was sponsored by King Louis the 18th. So, you know, it’s probably better to play nice, and giving a generic title was a good idea, in theory. But it was also pointless, or short-sighted, or both-- because the story of the Medusa was so well-known, between the captain’s trial, the controversy over fault, and the book written by the survivors, that contemporary audiences knew, straight away, exactly what scene Gericault was reproducing here. And they were stunned to see it, here, in the Salon, the holiest of art exhibitions, and presented in such gory detail and gigantic scale-- this painting is more than 16 feet tall and 23 feet long, so, you know, not a little thing. It was an attention-grabber, becoming the highlight of the Salon, the work of art on everyone’s tongues. And many, many people hated it. One critic described the work as a “pile of corpses,” and most just found the subject matter too depressing. And get this-- another critic supposedly cornered Gericault at the salon and asked him, point-blank, why he didn’t paint a happier shipwreck. I kid you not. Sure, next time we’ll make sure that all the shipwreck scenes are filled with puppies and unicorns and rainbows, as that’s how they are typically found in real life. Anyhow--sarcasm aside, this devotion to reality was another thing that was hugely shocking to Salon audiences, because they had been used to seeing scenes of death in art for hundreds of years, sure-- but people were typically beautiful and idealized in their lifeless state. Think of the body of a saint, or Jesus, or the Virgin Mary or something in Renaissance art--if anything, perhaps the artist tinged their skin with a little more gray. But there would hardly have been anything to hint at rigor mortis, or skin falling apart, or any of the other myriad horrors that a corpse undergoes post-death. Death, like everything else in art, was supposed to be classically perfect. Gericault instead made it hit too close to reality, bringing the tragedy of the Raft of the Medusa to the surface, again, for thousands of viewers. And don’t forget that guy whose possibly having a snack on the guy to the right side.
All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the political aspect of the painting, further complicating its reception. Critics and casual Salon-goers alike were divided based on political leanings. If the viewer was loyal to the crown, their harsh criticisms of the painting were based on their belief that Gericault was criticizing and blaming the crown for the shipwreck-- remember that many noted that Captain Chaumareys, as a member of the French Navy, would have been sanctioned and positioned by the Crown, and so blame would have gone all the way up to the King, in the eyes of some. Naturally, this same tack was taken by the other side as reason of praising Gericault and his monumental painting. Liberal-leaning critics hailed the work as a masterpiece because it appeared sympathetic to the anti-imperials cause of the survivors forced to sign that recusation document.
And then there was a final element of shock to the audience, one that similarly divided folks into two warring factions. Remember that central figure at the apex of the pyramidal structure, the one heroically attempting to flag down the Argus in the distance? Well, there was something surprising about him. Gericault chose the hero of his tale to be a black man. I know! You can gasp in shock and awe now! Seriously though, this was seen as another way that Gericault himself was attempting to either foment political unrest, or destroy the long-held expectations of history painting, or both. Let’s take up the latter point quickly. Traditionally in art, it was assumed that any hero would be presented as a white dude. By elevating a black man to the highest height in the painting-- both literally and figuratively-- Gericault was subverting the rules of the game. At the same time, there’s our former point to take into consideration. Keep in mind that this painting hit the Salon in the early 19th century, a time where abolitionism was growing in favor throughout the world but had not yet reached critical mass. And like in the U.S., it was a particularly fraught topic, as the slave trade throughout the French colonies was officially banned in 1817-- two years before the debut of this work of art-- but the ban didn’t actually go into effect until nearly 10 years later. And keep in mind that the Medusa was sailing back and forth from France to none other than Senegal-- a west African nation-- and that the black men presented in these paintings may very well have been slaves in the first place--including the man in that most heroic place in the painting. Gericault himself did hold abolitionist views, so it is probable that he was making a very pointed statement here-- a statement that would eventually gain strong support, especially in England, where Gericault exhibited the work the following year, in 1820. It proved to be popular there, possibly for a few different reasons-- the notoriety of the shipwreck, as well as the response to the painting in Paris the year earlier; the fact that anti-slavery agitation was much higher in England than in Continental Europe at the time; and the possibility of a self-congratulatory sentiment, as the English probably saw themselves as the eventual hero of the tale, as the Argus was a British brig. Still, the support back in Gericault’s home country was never enough to overcome the criticism, and after the painting’s return from the British Isles, he cut the canvas from its frame, rolled it up, and stored it at a friend’s house for the remainder of his lifetime. Tragically, that ended up not being a very long period, as Gericault died in 1824 at the age of just 32. Curiously, even with the scandal the painting caused at the Salon years before, the curators at the inimitable Louvre Museum saw it for what it was: a huge step in the direction of art in France, a true masterpiece of Romanticism, and an inspiration to those who would come later, like Eugene Delacroix. The museum purchased the painting from Gericault’s friend, and it continues to dominate the gallery in which it is shown, even today, two hundred years later.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo i by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com. Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts.
The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle. please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.