Why Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa Captured the Minds of Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Max Ernst, and So Many More
Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (fig. 1), now in the Louvre, is an icon of 19th Century art. Painted and first exhibited in 1819, it depicts the rescue of passengers and crew members of the French frigate Medusa which sank off the coast of North Africa in 1816. The shipwreck, its ensuing cover-up by the government and the subsequent scandal when all the events came to light received enormous attention in France. At the same moment, a young artist was searching for a suitable subject for the modern masterpiece he was intent on creating. With the Raft of the Medusa Géricault found a subject that conformed with his epic vision both of himself as an artist and modern French painting.
SHIPWRECK AND SCANDAL
The Medusa was carrying almost four hundred French soldiers and settlers headed for Senegal to establish a colony in the summer of 1816. The crew and passengers reflected the fractured state of French society at the time. The captain, Hugues Duroys de Chamareys, was a royalist who had not manned a ship in two decades, and many of the crew members serving under him were formerly in Napoleon's navy. Passengers also came from royalist and republican backgrounds, and there were Italians, Africans and Turks on board.
On 2 July the boat was shipwrecked, the blame lying with its incompetent captain Chamareys. The evacuation of the ship on 5 July was chaotic and there were not enough lifeboats. In addition, the captain along with Colonel Julien Schmaltz, the future governor of Senegal, abandoned ship before everyone else on board had got off. About 150 passengers were left on a makeshift raft composed of the wreckage of the frigate which was then tethered to the lifeboats. The passengers and crew on the lifeboats soon cut the raft free, fearing they would sink if more people came on board, and the 'Raft of the Medusa' was left adrift at sea for thirteen days.
The carnage and mayhem that ensued and was later described by the survivors was unimaginable. The dwindling number to remain alive suffered from hunger, thirst, exposure and delirium. Mutiny was followed by murder, and by the fourth day all the survivors had resorted to cannibalism. By the sixth day there were only fifteen people on the raft. On the thirteenth day they spotted a brig from their original convoy, the Argus in the distance and frantically tried to attract its attention, only to see it disappear over the horizon, before returning two hours later and finally rescuing them. It is this moment -- when despair gave way to hope -- as the men surge towards the brig, forming a human pyramid and waving frantically at it -- that Géricault chose to depict in his painting.
The survivors were taken on board the Argus. Five perished soon after, but ten men survived. After a government inquiry was surpressed several survivors gave their accounts of events to the press and wrote about their ordeal at sea. The most popular publication was Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse written in 1817 by Henri Savigny, the ship's surgeon and Alexandre Corréard, a career military officer. Their book became a primary source for Géricault's painting, and he even met the authors.
In 1816 Géricault was at a personal and professional crossroads. Having received some recognition for his early works, he was dismayed not to receive the Prix de Rome -- a competition for young French artists, the award for which was a sojourn in Italy. However, personal wealth allowed him to travel to Italy on his own. It also allowed him to escape personal turmoil as he had been having an affair with the young wife of his older uncle. Upon his return to France a year later, Géricault was full of restless ambition, searching for a subject that would match his pictorial goals of emotional immediacy and epic monumentality. The Medusa scandal had broken by this time. Contemporary subjects from the popular press were already of interest to him. Before beginning the Raft of the Medusa he had been consumed by the story of the murder of a government official, Fualdés. As much as the Fualdés murder and Medusa shipwreck were political events, they were also popular scandals and their stories were endlessly disseminated in newspapers and magazines -- and the stories' darker elements of murder, death and cannibalism inspired Géricault artistically.
By the spring of 1818 Géricault had chosen the wreck of the Medusa as his subject, but had not decided which moment of the story to depict. He conducted painstaking research, reading news coverage and survivors' accounts, meeting the survivors, and immersing himself in a long preparatory process for the composition. Fully informed about every aspect of the tragedy, he then began to concentrate on a few specific incidents in early pen and ink compositional sketches -- the chaotic evacuation of the frigate; the scandalous abandonment of the raft by the lifeboats; a mutiny on the raft; the horrific descent into cannibalism by the raft's survivors; and the rescue of the raft by the Argus.
Géricault eventually decided to depict the survivors' first sighting of the rescue ship -- a moment of emotional ambiguity that he infused with epic monumentality informed by the first-hand accounts he read, and many preparatory studies. A passage from Savigny and Corréard's book describes the moment:
Captain Dupont, casting his eye toward the horizon, perceived a ship, and announced it to use by a cry of joy; we perceived it to be a brig, but it was at a very great distance; we could only distinguish the top of its masts. The sight of this vessel spread amongst us a joy which it would be difficult to describe. Fears, however, soon mixed with our hopes; we began to preceive that our raft, having very little elevation above the water, was impossible to distinguish at such a distance. We did all we could to make ourselves observed; we piled up our casks, at the top of which we fixed handkerchiefs of different colors. Unfortunately, in spite of all these signals, the brig disappeared. From the delirium of joy we passed to that of dejection and grief.
The composition evolved into its identifiable pyramidal form over a series of nearly one hundred pen and ink sketches as well as oil studies. After choosing the episode to depict, Géricault experimented with elements of the composition such as the location of the rescue ship on the horizon line -- moving it further away from the raft in order to increase the narrative tension; changing the raft's position in the picture frame -- finally moving it to the very front of the picture plane; and reworking the arrangement of figures on the raft, beginning with a horizontal format before deciding on the more dramatic pyramidal form.
Géricault then made detailed studies for every figure in the painting, done mostly in chalk or charcoal, with a few -- such as the famous example of the African signalling the Argus done in oil (Montauban, Musée Ingres; Bazin 1978). He worked from live models, and some, like the one in the present drawing, can be recognized in other drawings. Eugène Delacroix posed for the face-down figure in the lower left quadrant. Géricault, fascinated with the more macabre aspects of the tragedy, also made drawings after cadavers and body parts which he sourced from local morgues and hospitals (Eitner, 1972, op. cit., figs. 79, 82-93).
It is remarkable that in order to create a modern history painting, Géricault relied on the traditional, academic role of drawings by making numerous compositional and figurative studies. The recto of the present double-sided sheet is a study of the father in the lower left of the painting, and includes a small compositional sketch turned ninety degrees to the right in the upper left quadrant. On the verso there are two sketches of the seated man next to the father.
The father holding his dead son is both the emotional and visual anchor of the painting. Quite early in the creative process Géricault seems to have decided to include a seated man mourning his dead son. One drawing, which is in reverse to the final composition, includes a seated figure, head in hand, grieving over a corpse that rests in his lap (Bazin 1958). This figure is seen alone in a rough pen and ink sketch in Rouen (Bazin 1960). Then Géricault decided to reorient the scene, so the ship which saves the raft appears in the upper right, at which point the father and son appear in the same general pose in the lower left quadrant of several compositional sketches (Bazin 1961, 1962, 1964-70).
Géricault then made several studies of the grieving father, focusing on different sheets on his pose, his facial expression and his anatomy. The present sheet is quite close to the final conception in the painting. The more theatrical expression of grief in earlier drawings has given way to a more stoic, almost catatonic despair, with his gaze fixed and his left arm hanging limply rather than desperately clutching his son's body. Careful attention has been paid to the modelling and shading of the figure. In the upper left quadrant is a small, quick sketch of the entire pyramidal composition turned ninety degrees to the right -- an indication that this drawing was made towards the end of the preparatory process. The inscription at the lower right probably refers to the model's address.
A comparison of the recto with a rough chalk sketch at the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne (Bazin 2005) shows the kind of fine-tuning Géricault applied to individual figures (fig. 2). On the Bayonne sheet, the father is still clothed in remnants of his military uniform. His expression appears stern. Subsidiary studies of arms and hands in the upper left quadrant show that Géricault is still wrestling with their placement.
On the verso there are two studies of the seated man, leaning on a box. Most likely the same model as that on the recto, he also appears to have been drawn from life in the studio. Another drawing in pen and ink also in the Musée Bonnat (fig. 3; Bazin 2011), shows the same figure with a study of his profile on the right side of the sheet. The pen study is a nearly identical pose to the one on the present sheet, but on the right of the present sheet the features of the mustachioed model has been transformed into those of an African. In the painting, Géricault reverted to his orignal conception of this figure and he seems to appear more Caucasian. However, African men were on the raft and Géricault does depicts them in the painting, most notably in the figure seen from behind waving to the distant ship who was an African crew member named Jean-Charles. As the present drawing demonstrates, even during the preparatory process he was exploring the racial identity of the raft's survivors. Part of the contemporary political debate that surrounded the shipwreck concerned France's role as a colonist in Africa and her participation in the slave trade, something the artist was no doubt aware of.
The Raft of the Medusa received an enormous amount of attention when it was exhibited at the Salon in 1819. The reviews were mixed; no prize for history painting was awarded that year and so all the painting was eligble to receive was a gold medal. The painting found no buyer at the Salon nor at an exhibition in London the following year, but after Géricault's death in 1824, it was purchased from his heirs by the French state.
Géricault's drawings however were more readily appreciated by collectors. This drawing previously belonged to the important collector François Marcille (1790-1856), and later to Pierre-Olivier Dubaut (1886-1968), an artist who amassed an extraordinary collection of Géricault paintings, drawings and watercolors. Dubaut organized several exhibitions dedicated to Géricault including those of 1950 and 1964 in which the present drawing was exhibited. He also worked on, but never finished a colossal monograph on the artist. This drawing is still in Dubaut's mount (fig. 4).
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Géricault, 1937, no. 129.
Paris, Galerie Eugène Bignou, Géricault, 1950, no. 46.
London, Marlborough Galleries, Géricault, 1952, no. 50, pl. XII. Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Géricault, 1953, no. 176.
Recklinghausen, Kunsthalle, Idee und Vollendung, 1962, no. 20d.
Paris, Galerie Aubry, Géricault, 1964, no. 69.
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, and elsewhere, Master Drawings by Géricault, 1985-86, no. 76r.
Paris, Grand Palais, Géricault, 1991, no. 205, figs. 255 ( recto) and 261 (verso).
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Géricault: La folie d'un monde, 2006, no. 83, fig. 101.
C. Blanc, Histoire des peintres français au XIX siècle, I, Paris, 1845, p. 440.
C. Clément, 'Catalogue de l'oeuvre de Géricault', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, October 1867, no. 107.
C. Clément, Géricault: étude biographique et critique avec le catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre du maître, Paris, 1868 and 1879, no. 120.
L. Eitner, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, London, 1972, p. 158, no. 50, fig. 44.
L. Eitner, Supplément, Paris, 1973, p. 466, no. 120.
L. Johnson, 'La Grosse Suzanne, Uncovered', The Burlington Magazine, April 1981, p. 221, note 8.
G. Bazin, Géricault: étude critique, documents et catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1994, VI, pp. 23, 129, no. 1996.
B. Chenique, Géricault: au coeur de la création romantique. Etudes pour le Radeau de la Méduse, exhib. cat., Clermont-Ferrand, Musée d'art Roger-Quilliot, 2012, figs. 9 (verso) and 15 (recto).
François Marcille, thence by descent to his son;
Camille Marcille, Drouot, Paris, 8-9 March 1876, lot 81 (27 Fr. to baron de Laage).
René Longa, Paris.
P.-O. Dubaut (L.2103b).
Théodore Géricault created one of the most iconic masterpieces of French Romanticism, the Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Depicted on a monumental scale, Géricault portrayed in horrifying explicitness scenes of a shipwreck based on a contemporary event in which the captain had deserted his crew and passengers, leaving them to die. The painting’s allusions to governmental negligence and corruption ignited great controversy and brought Géricault widespread attention. Although he died young, his candid representations and bold style influenced many of his contemporaries, including Eugène Delacroix, who served as one of the models for the Raft of the Medusa.
French, 1791-1824, Rouen, France, based in Paris, France
Why Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa Captured the Minds of Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Max Ernst, and So Many More
Happy birthday to “Raft of the Medusa” artist Théodore Géricault