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Raft of the Medusa

Last week I visited the Louvre, the palatial art behemoth sprawling on the right bank of the Seine. The Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Venus di Milo may be the Louvre’s most popular artworks, but there is another masterpiece that puts me in absolute awe: Theodore Gericault’s Le Radeau de la Meduse (The Raft of the Medusa). The Raft’s size, story, and style are truly astonishing.

Gericault’s painting is huge at 16 feet x 23 1/2 feet. Though it is hung in a hall of other large paintings, Raft of the Medusa is also shocking in its subject matter, depicting a contemporary disaster at sea off the Senegalese coast in 1816. Gericault read a book about the disaster and became obsessed with creating a moment in the story in a painting. I owe special thanks to the great storyteller and art historian Robert S. Olpin, 1940-2006, in whose University of Utah “From Romanticism to Impressionism” art class I first heard this story. You could have heard a pin drop in our lecture hall then, and I hope you’ll pay to Bob and to Theodore–may they both rest in peace–quiet homage now.

The French Medusa was captained by the inexperienced and incompetent Frigate-Captain Hughues Duroy de Chaumereys. De Chaumereys was speeding toward Senegal’s port of Saint-Louis, which the British had just surrendered to France. Against the crew’s warnings, de Chaumereys sailed the frigate close along Mauritania’s coastline, and the Medusa foundered off the Banks of Arguin. Six lifeboats were to house 400 people. Seventeen men stayed with the Medusa. Only the highest-ranking 250 were put into the lifeboats, and the remaining 149 crewmen, plus one woman, were crowded onto a raft made from the frigate’s mast and timbers. Four miles from shore, Frigate-Captain de Chamereys decided it was too difficult to navigate with the lifeboats towing the raft, and so he ordered his men to cut the tow rope.

For 13 days the raft drifted. Murder, suicide, and cannibalism were all part of the sordid picture. Only 15 of the original 150 survived to be rescued by the good ship Argus, and five of those died soon afterwards. Three of the 17 sailors marooned on the Medusa were later rescued, mad with starvation.

The survivors began telling their tale, and Medusa’s surviving surgeon Henri Savigny compiled an account that was leaked to the Journal des debats,, causing sensational headlines across Europe. De Chaumereys was found guilty of abandonment by a military tribunal, and Gericault started his studies for the painting, finishing the piece in 1818.

Gericault built a replica of the raft in his studio, interviewed and sketched survivors, and drew images of dead and dying patients at the Beajon Hospital. He reportedly brought back to his studio severed heads and body fragments to study their decay. He shaved his head and became quite obsessed with the project.

The figures he painted were not austere classical figures, not Mary and Jesus, and not stoic characters from heroic myth. Gericault represented ordinary dying men from contemporary headlines, wildly signaling a rescue ship. Thus, with a modern, emotional story, and the raft’s nonheroic figures, Gericault broke from neoclassicism into romanticism.

In 1824, six years after finishing The Raft, Gericault died of tuberculosis in Paris at age 33. The Louvre then bought the painting from his family. At his grave in the sprawling Pere Lachaise Cemetery, a reclining, green-highlighted, bronze statue of the artist reclines over a bas relief rendering of The Raft.

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