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Raft of the Medusa

Collection: 
Louvre, Paris

 

Géricault allowed observers to watch him work on Raft of the Medusa. The painter Antoine Alphonse Montfort (1802-84) recalled:

“His manner of working was quite new to me, and surprised me no less than his profound concentration. He painted directly on the white canvas, without a rough sketch or preparation of any sort, except for a firmly traced contour, and yet the solidity of the work was none the worse for it. I noted also with what intense attention he examined the model before touching the brush to the canvas, seeming to advance slowly, when in reality he executed very rapidly, putting one touch after the other in place, rarely having to go over his work twice. No movement was visible in his body or arms. His expression was perfectly calm; only his slightly flushed face betrayed his mental concentration. Witnessing this external calm, one was all the more surprised by the verve and energy of his execution. What salience! Especially in their half-finished state, the various parts of the picture had the look of roughly blocked-out sculpture.”

Cited in Lorenz Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, vol. 2: Neoclassicism and Romanticism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 67-8.


Contemporary critic Comte O’Mahony described Raft of the Medusa in his review “Exposition des tableaux: Suite des tableaux d’histoire” published in Le Conservateur (vol. 5) in 1819:

“On a raft that is about to be engulfed by a wave, the painter has assembled the most repulsive traits of despair, rage, hunger, agony, death, and even putrefaction, and all this executed with an overabundance of verve, honest drawing, an energy of touch, a boldness of brush and color that heighten the terrible effects a hundredfold. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can mitigate so many horrors. All are going to perish, salvation is not available to them, since none of them has their hand raised toward Him whom the seas and winds obey.  Closed unto themselves, they will fall from the abyss of the waters into the abyss of eternity, without even realizing it; and, as they have forgotten the Lord, they have forgotten one another. No consolation is given or offered. Each sees only death ahead and laments his own life: this is egoism in its final hour. …What a hideous spectacle but what a beautiful picture.”

Cited in Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution, 1815-1848 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 146-7.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres did not like Raft of the Medusa or Wounded Cuirassier :

“I wish they would take the painting of the Medusa out of the [Luxembourg] Museum and those two great dragoons, its acolytes. Let them put the one into some corner of the Ministry of the Navy, and the two others [including Charging Cuirassier, 1812] into the Ministry of War, so that they may no longer corrupt the taste of the public which ought to be accustomed exclusively to things of beauty….I don’t want that Medusa and those other paintings of the dissecting room which show us man only in the form of cadavers and which represent only the ugly and hideous. No, I don’t want them. Art should always be beautiful and only teach beauty.”
From Henri Delaborde, Ingres, sa vie, ses travaux, ses doctrines (Paris 1870) ; cited in Lorenz Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, vol. 2: Neoclassicism and Romanticism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), pp. 138-9.


When Raft of the Medusa was exhibited in London between 12 June and 30 December 1820, reviews were mostly positive:

“But as more frequent views of the awful scene have increased our admiration of the power of art and the ability of the artist, we shall endeavor to point out some of the striking qualities by which the mind is so strongly excited. 
     The details in a picture, however excellent in their character, are lost if not exhibited under the judicious arrangement of composition, aided by the effect of light and color; and that which the ardent imagination of the artist or the poet takes in at a glance must, by the painter, become the subject of great consideration and be subjected to certain rules and principles, yet so concealed as to appear the spontaneous effort of some powerful impulse.
     In this tremendous picture of human sufferings, the bold hand of the artist has laid bare the details of the horrid facts, with the severity of Michelangelo and the gloom of Caravaggio; the flesh indeed might be more strongly reflected; but the whole of the coloring is so well suited to the subject and is in most instances so just that we scarcely know if its tone can be called a blemish so entire as at first sight it appears.
     But it is over the varied detail of form, the most correct anatomical markings of the figure, and all the agitated emotions of hope and fear, that Mr. Jerricault (sic) has impressed the magic of an effect that was to give value to the whole. The light brought into the piece and thrown upon the upturned faces of a center group powerfully assists in arresting the attention. This seems to break on them from the illumination of a highly illuminated cloud above their heads, and is contrasted by much surrounding gloom, and this again by the bright rays of the morning. Perhaps it is not natural, that is, could not happen to be so distributed in the full light of day; but there are great authorities for such departures from truth in this respect.
     The powerful element of the mighty waters is very happily depicted by the hand of the artist; and taken all together, his work is, as we have before observed, one of the finest specimens of the French school ever brought to this country. It cannot therefore fail to stimulate the exertions of the British talents to a further display of those powers which have already so happily and so honorably distinguished our artists and art. To Mr. Bullock [exhibition arranger] we think great praise is due for procuring such opportunities for examination and comparison of the two national schools. If he continues to bring over chefs d’oeuvre of French painters, he will do as good a thing as could be done to advance British art. Emulation is a noble teacher.”

Anonymous review appearing in Journal of Belles Lettres (1 July 1820); cited in Lee Johnson, “The Raft of the Medusa in Great Britain,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 96, no. 617 (August 1954): 251.

 

Jonathan Crary offers an explanation for why Géricault’s Raft of the Medua was a financial disappointment when exhibited in Dublin in 1821:

“Following its run in London, which did much to east, at least temporarily, Géricault’s financial problems and depression, a deal was struck to have the painting do a run in Dublin. Here, we learn from standard accounts, the painting did less well, and after two months in the spring of 1821 the decision was made to have the work shipped back to France. Why did it not do as well in Dublin as it had in London? In a remarkable historical intersection, Géricault’s painting competed for attention in the Irish capital with another artifact of nineteenth-century visual culture, a moving panorama titled The Wreck of the Medusa, which represented precisely the same recent news item. Sometimes called a Peristrephic panorama, a moving panorama involving a long band of canvas on which a continuous sequence of scenes had been painted and which was unrolled before a seated audience. Colored lighting enhanced the effect of individual scenes, and often a small orchestra added drama to the whole. Thus, for roughly the same price, a consumer had the choice of seeing over 10,000 square feet of moving painted surface or about 450 square feet of motionless canvas. Moreover, one of the scenes in the moving panorama was effectively a copy of Géricault’s painting, so one really didn’t need to pay to see the original as well. If Géricault’s painting and the Dublin panorama were rivals for patronage within an economic space around 1820, it certainly should not be seen as some opposition between elite culture and a crude popular form. Rather it was a competition between two types of reality effect that each represented the same event, and the marketplace decided which was the more compelling attraction.”
 
Jonathan Crary, ”Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Grey Room, no. 9 (Autumn 2002): 16-17.

 

After surviving their three-week ordeal on a hastily-constructed raft, a surviving surgeon (Savigny) and engineer (Correard) wrote an account of events. This excerpt describes the beginning of events, before cannibalism began:

“The raft, lightened by throwing away these flour barrels was able to receive more men; we were at length a hundred and fifty. The machine was submerged a least a meter: we were so crowded together that it was impossible to take a single step; at the back and the front, we were in water up to the middle. At the moment that we were putting off from the frigate, a bag with twenty-five pounds of biscuit was thrown us, which fell into the sea; we got it up with difficulty; it was converted into a paste, but we preserved it in that condition. Several considerate persons fastened the casks of wine and water to the cross pieces of the raft, and we kept a strict watch over them. Thus we have faithfully described the nature of our situation when we put off from the vessel….This whole night we contended against death, holding fast by the ropes which were strongly fastened. Rolled by the waves from the back to the front…sometimes precipitated into the sea, suspended between life and death, lamenting our misfortune, certain to perish yet still struggling for a fragment of existence with the cruel element which threatened to swallow us up….About seven o’clock, in the morning, the sea fell a little, the wind blew with less fury; but what a sight presented itself to our view! \ten or twelve unhappy wretches, having their lower extremities entangled in the openings between the pieces of raft, had not been able to disengage themselves and had lost their lives; several others had been carried off by the violence of the sea.”

Henry Savigny and Alexander Correard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816; undertaken by the order of the French Government comprising an account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, the Sufferings of the Crew, and the Various Occurrences on Board the Raft, in the Desert of Yaara, at St. Louis, and at the Camp of Accord, London: Henry Colburn, 1818,http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/11772.

 

Web Resources:

smarthistory.com: Raft of the Medusa

About the Artist

Born: Rouen, 26 September 1791
Died: Paris, 26 January 1824
Nationality: French