Museum Monday

October 29, 2012

By Mary Jo Gibson

The Raft of the Medusa

I am always on the lookout for new paintings that tell an incredible story, and the Raft of Medusa by Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) proved to be a treasure trove of history, tortured lives, and brutal, life changing events.  A simple picture on Pinterest brought  this immense canvas into my line of sight, reading about the painting in Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa’ did not even begin to hint at the complexity of the story of the Medusa.

Gericault drew his inspiration from a current event of the times, the wreck of the Meduse – a French Royal Navy frigate that set sail in 1816 to colonize Senegal.  The ship ran aground off the coast of what is now Mauritania, on a sand bar that reaches far into the ocean along the coast of the Sahara; a place known for raids by Moorish pirates, who sold their hostages into slavery in Turkey.

The crew and passengers of the Meduse numbered 400, 160 of which were crew, but there was only space for 250 in the lifeboats.  The remaining 145 men and one woman were piled onto a hastily constructed raft that partially submerged once it was loaded.  The captain and the crew of the lifeboats intended to tow the raft, but after only a few hours, it was released to drift in the ocean.  For sustenance, these doomed souls had only a bag of biscuits (consumed on the first day), two casks of water (lost overboard during fighting the second day), and a few casks of wine.

This raft carried the survivors to the frontiers of the human experience.  Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.

After 13 days, the raft was rescued by the Argus.  Only 15 men remained alive.  The event became an international scandal due to the newly restored French monarchy being held culpable.  Here is the Wiki link to more about the aftermath, trials and government corruption.

Theodore Gericault, 1791-1824

Enter stage left, Theodore Gericault, an inspired painter, whose obsession with the story of the Meduse changed the course of his existence.  With his personal life in turmoil after breaking-off an affair with his aunt; Gericault shaved his head and lived a disciplined monastic existence at his studio in the Faubourgh du Roule, from November 1818 to July 1819; the orderly studio artist worked by a methodical fashion in complete silence, finding that even the sound of a mouse was sufficient to break his concentration.

Gericault undertook extensive research and produced many preparatory sketches.  He interviewed two survivors, Henri Savigny and Alexandre Correard; another of the survivors, Lavillette, helped him construct an accurately detailed scale model of the raft which was reproduced on the finished canvas.

Earlier travels had exposed Gericault to the victims of insanity and plague; but his efforts to be historically accurate and realistic with the Meduse led to an obsession with the stiffness of corpses.  He went to morgues and hospitals where he could view first-hand the color and the texture of flesh in the dying and the dead.

The painting’s conception proved slow and difficult for Gericault, and he struggled to select a single pictorially effective moment to best capture the inherent drama of the event.  He considered the scenes of mutiny against the officers from the second day on the raft, the cannibalism that occurred after only a few days, and the rescue.  An early study for the Raft, in watercolor, now in the Louvre, is much more explicit, depicting a figure gnawing on the arm of a headless corpse

The pallid bodies are given cruel emphasis in a Caravaggio style, one group writhes in the elation of hope, while others are unaware of the passing ship; the latter include two figures of despair and solitude; one mourning his son, the other bewailing his own fate.  Eugene Delacroix, friend and artistic peer, modeled for two figures.

Eugene Delacroix

The paintings first appearance was at the Paris Salon of 1819, sponsored by the new monarchy of Louis XVIII.  Passionate praise and condemnation in equal measure poured forth, and the reputation Gericault sought was established.  At the end of the exhibition he received a gold medal but the judges refrained from giving the work the greater prestige of being selected for the Louvre’s national collection.  Instead the artist was awarded a commission on the subject of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he clandestinely offered to Delacroix, and then signed the finished painting as his own.  Gericault retreated to the countryside where he collapsed from exhaustion, and his magnum opus, having found no buyer, was rolled up and stored in a friend’s studio.  The Raft of the Meduse was acquired by the Louvre soon after the artist’s death at the age of 32.

The painting remains one of the greatest witnesses of human indifference to the suffering of others.

Removing the Raft of the Medusa from the Louvre

The Raft may have been consigned to dominate a gallery at the Louvre, but another turbulent time approached; where cultural identity was being erased in conquered countries as the Nazi forces overtook Europe; the scale of what was occurring in this photograph caught my attention while perusing the history section of Pinterest.  The immense undertaking at the Louvre to save the cultural heritage of France mirrored the urgency of the ship wrecked survivors to save themselves from certain enslavement, no matter the cost.

In the autumn of 1939, scenery trucks from the Comedie Francaise were brought in to move the biggest paintings.  Although several had been rolled, the Raft was too fragile.  The trucks left the Louvre at six in the evening, just as the cover of darkness was falling.  The careful planning had gone to  meticulous lengths to include measuring all the bridges between Paris and Chambord, but the trolley lines of the town of Versailles had been overlooked, and the Raft became hopelessly ensnared in the crackling wires.  Magdeleine Hours, sent off in total darkness to wake her colleagues at the Palace of Versailles, vividly described the terrifying task of finding the doorbell, somewhere on the vast entrance.

In the end, the Raft and some of its companions were left in the Orangerie.  Chief curator Rene Huyghe rescued them some weeks later, accompanied by a team of post office employees who carried long insulated poles to raise any threatening wires.  The Raft of Medusa eventually reached the Chateau Chambord where it remained until after the end of the Second World War.

I love the inspiration that comes from art, the motivation to seek explanations and stories drives me into the research. The experience of Theodore Gericault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ was a reward I will not soon forget. Until next time,




Filed under October

3 responses to “Museum Monday

  1. Great write up! I particularly like the preparatory drawings.

  2. Thank you Shtina, I truly enjoyed researching this painting. Whata story!
    The research you are doing on Wahle, what a find those magazines were, where ever did you get those?

  3. Thanks Mary Jo! I got really lucky; the University of Heidelberg Library has the entire run of Fliegende Blätter available as high quality scans available free online.

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