GÉRICAULT, Théodore
(b. 1791, Rouen, d. 1824, Paris)

The Raft of the Medusa

1818-19
Oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

In expressing the predicament of the shipwrecked everywhere in the world, Géricault had laid the foundations of an aesthetic revolution. The Raft of the Medusa marks the first appearance in painting of 'the ugly' and thereby proclaims its scrupulous respect for the truth, however repulsive the truth might be. This concern for truth is integral to the Romantic temperament.

For his Salon picture in 1819, Géricault chose a dramatic episode — the wreck of the frigate Meduse, which had set off with a French fleet on an expedition to Senegal, and had been lost in July 1816. The French admiralty was accused of having put an incompetent officer in charge of the expedition; he was the Comte de Chaumareix, a former emigre who had not commanded a vessel for twenty-five years. The picture was an enormous success, more on account of the scandal than because of an interest in the arts; but Géricault only received a gold medal, and his picture was not bought by the government. One wonders who it was suggested commissioning this painter of horror subjects to do a Sacred Heart.

Géricault was mortified, and decided to exhibit his picture in England, where a pamphlet had been published on the wreck of the Meduse. He entrusted the vast canvas to an eccentric character named Bullock (as Lethière had done with his Brutus Condemning his Sons), and it was exhibited in London from 12 June to 31 December 1820, and in Dublin from 5 February to 31 March 1821. Géricault received a third of the takings, and the operation brought him in quite a large sum (probably 20,000 francs).

The painting was priced at 6,000 francs at the posthumous sale of the artist's possessions. It was bought by Dedreux-Dorcy, a friend of Géricault, for an additional five francs, and he sold it to the State for the same amount.

The most horrifying part of the shipwreck had been the drama of 149 wretches abandoned on a raft with only some casks of wine to live on, and the ensuing drunkenness and abominations. When the frigate Argus found the raft, after many days, she was only able to rescue fifteen survivors, of whom five died after being brought ashore. After some hesitation, Géricault chose this last episode — the sighting of the Argus by the survivors on the raft. With regard to the latter, he set himself to the task of carrying out an inquest as thoroughly as any examining magistrate. He rented a studio opposite the Beaujon hospital, so that he could make anatomical studies of the dying.

The picture was painted by Géricault in an extraordinary state of tension; 'the mere sound of a smile prevented him from painting'.