The depiction of a group of survivors from the French ship Méduse, which ran aground on the west coast of Africa in 1816, was both a blessing and a curse for the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault. The initial public reaction wasn’t totally favourable for the inspiring young artist who had hoped to gain popular acclaim amongst his peers and the viewing public. His subject matter was apparently a little too gruesome for some. The French government in particular was incensed by it, construing it as an outright political attack how they handled the aftermath of the Méduse shipwreck. But when tempers eased, the work won out on its merits as a very fine example of the early Romantic movement, while at the same time retaining traditional elements of history painting.
The shipwreck story of the French navy frigate Méduse in 1816 would have likely disappeared into the annals of history if not for Géricault willingness to take a risk artistically, reminding us all of an event that some in the French aristocracy tried to cover up. Thankfully, due to survivor accounts, interviews and research by Géricault, he succeeded capturing the dramatic moment when the distraught castaways of the Méduse were trying to attract the attention of a ship on the horizon which eventually rescued them.
It is interesting to think that the fate of the poor souls on the raft depicted in Géricault’s 1819 painting might have been different, if only it was towed to safety by the Méduse’s lifeboats as originally planned. But as fear swept through the crew on the lifeboats of being overwhelmed by the desperate survivors aboard the raft, it was unscrupulously decided to cut the ropes towing the raft. In that instance the fate of almost one hundred and fifty castaways was sealed. What followed was a horrible floating misadventure which resulted in acts of murder, cannibalism and hardship. By the end of almost two weeks at sea, only fifteen survivors (of whom five died soon after) lived to tell their stories.
To fully comprehend the importance of this early nineteenth masterpiece, in a historical context and as an artistic undertaking, look no further than the images of suffering and despair of Théodore Géricault’s subjects. Even the ghastly images of death, particularly shown in the lower left corner of the oil painting are disconcerting.
The artist Géricault was without doubt destined to become a rising star of the French art world, but as a consequence of debilitating injuries caused by repeated falls from his horse and underlying issues related to tuberculosis, he instead died a broken young man at the age of 32.
Interestingly a few years before his death when the painting failed to provide him the fame and fortune he desperately sought in France, he cut his shipwrecked painting from its frame and sent it to be stored at a friends house where he moaned, “It’s not worth looking at, I shall do better.” Little did he know that his painting was fittingly acquired soon after his death by the Lourve Museum in Paris in 1824 for its cultural and artistic importance.
Today, it still holds down a prized spot in the Louvre reminding visitors of the unsavoury events of the Méduse travesty, where a small caption beneath the painting reads that “the only hero in this poignant story is humanity”.
This painting is in the public domain.