“The Raft of the Medusa,” while maintaining the symmetry of Poussin, changes painting once and for all. It is sculptural and architectural, but depicts no architecture. Two great overlapping triangles, suggesting both a ship’s sails and the ocean’s waves, define the space. They also contain 19 human figures (one barely visible, four others quite obscure) in various postures, combinations and stages of life: the living, the dying and the dead, old and young, black and white, male and—perhaps—female. Some have faces; others turn away from us. We can read the painting both from left to right and from bottom to top.
It is a colossal canvas by any stretch; sixteen feet high and twenty-three feet wide, and if you stand fairly close to it, ‘you already feel as though you had one foot in the water” , as Delacroix said after attending its debut at the Paris Salon of 1819. Unlike most of the overblown and boring salon pictures of the epoch, its size is not in inverse proportion to its historical importance. Theodore Gericault’s ”Raft of the Medusa” launched the romantic movement in French painting just as decisively as Victor Hugo’s ”Hernani” rang up the curtain on the romantic theatre and Hector Berlioz’s ”Symphonie Fantastique” proclaimed a new age of romantic music.
Gericault, however, was a full ten years ahead of the others, which made his task correspondingly difficult and his leap all the more spectacular. His particular contribution to romanticism has to do with style and technique, but above all with the artist’s emotional involvement as an ”homme engage” . His predecessors had painted beautifully affirmative pictures of the Church or the party in power, such as Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of Napoleon.
Gericault, who would have belonged to the opposition party no matter what the issue, chose to be a protest painter long before protest and dissent had become a familiar and even fashionable way of art. He put fifteen shipwrecked men and four corpses on a raft in mid-ocean and held them up to view as an indictment of the crimes and blunders that were responsible for their ordeal. At one stroke he realized all the rebel ambitions that the young painters of his generation had been talking about. Instead of a classical subject, he was dealing with a current event; in place of stylized nudes there were flesh and blood bodies in postures of suffering and death. If this was an allegory of the human condition, no wonder the critics accused him of being a man without a sense of the beautiful.
When the picture was first exhibited, the catalogue, in deference to the censor, listed it simply as a ”Shipwreck Scene”. But no one had to be told who these men were, or of what disaster the victims. The shipwreck of the frigate ”Medusa” had precipitated a great political scandal, which the government of Louis XVIII had in vain tried to suppress. People saw it as far more than just a maritime disaster. It became a symbol; symptomatic of everything that was wrong with the Bourbon Restoration and the emigre officials who flocked back to France after the fall of Napoleon. The captain of the Medusa, Duroys de Chaumareix, was an aristocrat of the ancien regime who had been a lieutenant in the navy at the outbreak of the French Revolution and had then gone into exile; he had not been to sea for twenty-five years prior to being appointed to its command. His frigate was the flagship of a small squadron ordered to Senegal in 1816 to take formal possession of the African colonies that the British had seized from Napoleon and were restoring to the Bourbons under the Treaty of Paris.
The squadron had hardly left port before De Chaumareix lost contact with his escort vessels. A few days later, on July 2, 1816, he ran his ship aground o a sandbank some seventy miles off the coast of what is now Mauritania. The frigate was loaded with four hundred passengers and crew, nearly double what her lifeboats could hold. Among the passengers were the newly appointed governor of Senegal with his family and members of his staff, two companies of soldiers from a battalion destined for the service in Africa, and a large number of civilians, including twenty-one women.
When the frigate ran aground, her boats might have managed to pull her off had the captain immediately jettisoned the flour in her hold, but this cargo seemed to precious to throw overboard. Then, when the ship began to be battererd to pieces by the waves, the governor sketched out a plan for a raft to be used by the surplus people. All the available sparstimber were lashed together to form a makeshift platform 65 feet long and 23 feet wide.
At last, on July 5, the order was given to abandon ship. The ladies and gentlemen of quality embarked on the captain’s and the governor’s barges. Most of the naval personnel found seats in the four other lifeboats. That left 149 men and one women, a sergeant’s wife, to be loaded aboard the raft, an operation attended by the high degree of military efficiency for which troop movements are noted. In their hurry to leave, the ship’s officers made no serious efforts to provide this mob with anything to eat ofr drink; the castaways, the dregs, were sent off with only a bag of sea-soaked biscuit, two small casks of water, and, being a French ship, six barrels of table wine.
With 150 people on boards, the raft nearly sank under the weight. Everyone was standing in water up to the waist, and crowded so close to the others that it was hardly possible to take a step, let alone sit or lie down. Ropes had to be rigged to keep the men at the edges from falling overboard even in calm weather. A stubby mast was fitted with a small sail, but it was almost totally useless.
The four officers on the raft had all declined opportunities in the lifeboats. Among them was Alexander Correard, a civil engineer who had not wanted to abandon the twelve construction workers in his care, and Henri Savigny, one of the ship’s surgeons, who had refused to leave these men without the services of a doctor. It was they who afterward wrote the grimly accusatory ”Account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa” which is the principal source of information about the disaster.
The naval officer ostensibly commanding the raft was an expendable midshipman, Coudin, who had been injured in an accident and was unable to move his legs. His attempts to obtain charts and a sextant had proved fruitless, and when someone afterward had managed to find a pocket compass, it slipped from Coudin’s hands and was lost between the timbers of the raft. Duroys de Chaumareix did not bother with the maritime protocol that the captain is the last to leave the ship; he was off with shouts of ”Vive le Roi !” while there were still seventeen men left on the hull of the frigate. However, most of them were men who had broken into the wine stores and were too wasted to care. The original plan had been for the lifeboats to tow the raft to the nearest point on the African shore.
But, the submerged raft was too unweildy for easy towing and threatened to impede the progress of the boats. Before long, to the horror of the men watching from the raft, one boat after another slipped its towrope, leaving them helplessly adrift on the open sea. A junior lieutenant in one of the small boats tried to protest when he saw a sailor on the captain’s barge drop the line: ”captain take your towrope again,” he shouted, but the captain merely ordered his men to hoist sail and make for the African coast, which was, in fact, so close that it came within sight before sundown.
Savigny and Correard later estimated that the boats could have towed the raft to safety in a couple of days. ”perhaps they would have been forced to foresake us the second night after our departure, if indeed more than thirty-six hours had been required to tow us to land; for the weather was very bad; but we should then have been very near to the coast, and it would have been very easy to save us; at least we should have had only the elements to accuse!”
”The absence of a divinity who watches over the victims of shipwreck appears with particular clarity in Géricault’s Raft of the ‘Medusa’ because, as Eitner suggests, the artist violated certain codes and expectations of the audience. First, the artist broke radically with contemporary art when he created a major public image without traditional religious or political meanings — something especially blatant because he chose a large canvas of the size previously reserved for statements of political and religious belief. Second, Gericault omitted any sort of secular or heavenly divinity, which were conventionally included in such works. The painters of the Napoleonic era, particularly Gros, had glorified the emperor by making scenes of human suffering the setting for imperial pomp.
According to Eitner,
Gros made this subordination of human suffering to a higher, political interest naively clear in the horizontal subdivision of his canvases: above the victims of war agonizing in the lower foreground, the Emperor and his retinue pass like a celestial vision .
Géricault omitted from thc Raft all devices fcr placing human suffering in an ideological context.
Its drama has no heros and no message. No God, saint, or monarch presides over the disaster; no common cause is in evidence; no faith, no victory justifies the suffering of the men on the Raft: their martyrdom is one without palm or flag. It is as if Géricault had taken the foreground of human misery from one of the Gros’ pictures and omitted the apotheosis above.
The artist, in other words, makes his point by violating two codes or conventions, the first that large works were reserved for statements of ideological import sanctioned by church or state, and the second that such works which represented human suffering should contain an ideological justification of them. By omitting both expected features, Géricault forcefully created an image of human isolation and helplessness which proclaims the absence of such usual explanations.”