The Medusa, a naval frigate, ran aground off Mauritania in July 1816. Only about 250 of the 400 people on board could fit into the lifeboats. On a jerry-built raft about 150 of the others were set adrift. By the time of their rescue thirteen days later, only fifteen were still alive. The event caused a scandal at home and abroad owing to the perceived incompetence of the ship’s captain, which became a symbol of the Bourbons, and the French Restoration; the cutting adrift of the lower classes.
The vast painting—193 inches high, 282 inches wide—hangs, with other large canvases of that period, in one of the Louvre’s grand galleries. Géricault (1791-1824) revolutionized the depiction of real events, taking for his subject a scandal only a few years old and “romanticizing” it. While the painter visited hospitals and morgues to study the moribund and cadavers, the figures on the raft here hardly look as though they have just suffered through dehydration, starvation, cannibalism and madness. They are muscular. Some are beautiful.
Today’s viewer will probably respond less to this picture’s political and historical relevance than to the drama of its composition. In terms of art history, it looks both backward and forward. ”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 nineteen 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.
The picture represents a specific moment. The survivors have just sighted the Argus, the boat that will eventually rescue them but is now a speck on the horizon, actually passing them by. At the top, two men, one an African crew member, are waving banners, shirts or kerchiefs. The figures express a range of emotions, from eagerness and exultation to incredulity, despair, hysteria, resignation and apathy. ….
… On the fifth day, only thirty were left alive, but at least a certain ”esprit de corps” began to make itself felt. On the seventh day, two soldiers who bored a hole in the last wine cask were summarily tossed overboard, though not eaten, by the others. Of those who remained , only fifteen seemed likely to live for some days. The rest, ill or wounded, and obviously doomed, were consuming too much of the dwindling wine ration and taking up precious space. Instinctively, the healthy ones now chose , had they but known it, the Darwininan solution. If the fittest were to survive, the unfit, including the one woman, the sergeant’s wife, would have to be jettisoned, along with whatever remained of the Christian ethic. ”So after a debate, at which the most dreadful despair presided, it was resolved to throw them into the sea. This measure, however repugnant it was to ourselves, procured the survivors wine for six days.”
During these six days, still drifting aimlessly, they seemed to be coming closer to shore, for they saw birds and butterflies flying overhead. Finally, on the thirteenth day of their ordeal, the morning of July 17, they sighted a sail on the horizon. ”The sight of this vessel excited in us a transport of joy which it would be difficult for us to describe; each of us believed his deliverance certain, and we have a thousand thanks to God; yet, fears mingled with our hopes. We straitened some hoops of casks, to the end of which we tied handkerchiefs of different colors. A man, assisted by us all together, mounted to the top of the mast and waved these little flags.”
To their horror the ship suddenly vanished and not until two
….”Schmaltz had the idea of building a raft to carry the soldiers and crew to shore. The more “important” of the passengers would be comfortably stowed in lifeboats strung together, and these would tow the raft to safety. The raft was made of the masts and cross-beams of the boat. It was crudely constructed, roughly 65 feet by 23 feet (or 20m x 7m). It had no means of navigation and no oars. When the men were loaded onto it, some 150 of them, they sank down in the sea to their waists. It was hopelessly overcrowded; each man only had a square three feet (1 m) on a side to stand in. Without even enough room to lie down in, they stood in the water, and their legs shriveled up like prunes.
Five of the six lifeboats, on the other hand, were ridiculously undermanned. Fewer men on the lifeboats meant more rations per person, which is what the rich folk expected. De Chaumereys (who was one of the first off the ship), Schmaltz, Schmaltz’s family and the other notable passengers had a far better chance of survival than the poor slobs on the raft, who were soaked, starving, cramped, and all but doomed. The lifeboats loaded first and launched. Seventeen men, rather than risk the raft, decided to stay on the Medusa and take their chances. De Chaumereys told the men on the raft that he had “provided [them] with everything [they] need.” Everything, that is, except a compass, enough food and water to accommodate so many men, a dry place to sleep, blankets or space to lie down. While details of their actual supplies are sketchy, we know they had little more than a few barrels of wine and fresh water, and some flour. They had no ability to build a fire of any kind for cooking or warmth.
It soon became apparent that the plan was a foolish one, not least because there was an overfilled raft full of resentful sailors wanting to boot the teeth clean out of the wealthy’s mouths. The occupants of the raft, desperate to save themselves, would soon have overwhelmed a lifeboat had it got anywhere near them. So whenever the raft drifted too near, the smaller vessels would hightail it away. De Chaumereys, afraid and desperate, finally gave the order to untie the raft and leave its occupants to the mercy of the seas. We can only speculate at the state of mind of these men left behind, as they watched the lifeboats disappear over the horizon, leaving the raft stranded, at sea some four miles from the shore. They’d be back, right? Wrong.” ….
Months later, Savigny and Correard, a doctor and engineer who elected to satay on the raft, met again in Paris, where neither of them succeeded in obtaining compensation or acknowledgement from the Minister of the Marine. In 1817, after newspaper acounts of the disaster had been suppressed, they published the whole story in book form, and their sufferings became a ”cause celebre” . The cptain, De Chaumareix, was given a show trial and sentenced to three years imprisonment. But public opinion persisted in laying the blame on the ultras in the government.
It was at this point that Gericault became interested in the case and conceived the idea of painting a monumental mortality piece based on the incident. He was twenty-six , and had only recently returned from an exploratory year in Italy, where he had studied antique sculpture, Michelangelo’s frescoes, and the painters of the baroque. He was a great lover of horses, and up to then his best pictures had been devoted to cavalrymen and horses. Physically, he was the quintessence of the young romantic artist long before Chopin, De Musset, and Berlioz had established the prototype.
Born in Rouen in 1791, Gericault belonged to a wealthy merchant family and lived in Paris like an aristocrat. The long, stormy love affair that he had been carrying on with the young wife of his maternal uncle, Caruel, was just drawing to an embarrassing conclusion; the aunt was about to give birth to the nephew’s child. If he needed a pretext for leaving his house on Montmartre to avoid the family scandal, the Medusa certainly provided him with one. Since the picture he wanted to paint was too large for his existing studio, he rented another in the faubourg de Roule where he could set up his enormous canvas and shut himself away from the world.
Gericault approached his task with a documentarian’s passion for detail. He not only read the book; he heard the entire story from the lips of Savigny and Correard, whom he met through a mutual friend. They helped him track down one of the survivors, the Medusa’s carpenter who built him an exact scale model of the raft. To study authentic expressions of agony and despair,he went to the nearby Beaujon hospital. ”There he found models who did not have to make grimaces in order to dsiplay all the nuances of physical pain or mental anguish, the ravages of disease or the terror of death”. The hospital staff also arranged to furnish him with cadavers and severed lmbs, by-products of recent surgical operations, and for several months his studio resembled a charnel house.
However, in the end it was the artist who triumphed over the documentarian. His central problem was the ancient and perpetually novel one of how to transform reality into art. In his preliminary sketches he wavered between several different episodes from the story. The first mutiny, the outbreak of cannibalism, the sighting of the rescue ship, and the actual rescue, when the Argus’s lifeboat reaches the raft.
After many experiments he fixed on the critical moment that describes the horror and at the same time offers the promise of slavation. There are, for that matter, a great many allusions here to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as the baroque painters envisaged them. This is the psychological instant when hope and despair are evenly balanced; it is almost as though he had wanted to illustrate, not the iron law of Darwin, but the ”Hope Principle” which the philosopher Ernst Bloch had identified as one of the great themes of nineteenth-century social thought.