Monday, 9 January 2012

Théodore Géricault - The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse)

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

1815 and Louis XVIII is installed once more on the French throne following the final abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the same year, as part of the peace settlement with Great Britain, the West African country of Senegal is returned to French colonial rule. 

June 1816, the French naval frigate Méduse, a four-mast frigate, sets sail for the Senegalese port of Saint-Louis. Aboard is the colony's new governor, Colonel Schmaltz, together with his family and more than 400 passengers. Three other naval vessels accompany the Méduse, the whole flotilla under the command of one Duroy de Chaumarey, an inexperienced officer who has not navigated for over 20 years. 

The Méduse is the fastest and most modern vessel in the French naval fleet. Very quickly it outpaces two of the accompanying vessels. Only the Echo, a corvette, remains in touch. Then, on the night of the 1st to the 2nd of July, the Echo signals the Médusa by lantern to warn that they are too close to the shore. The officer on the Médusa who sees the signals either does not understand them, or refuses to believe them. On 2 July, at 4 p.m., the ship runs aground, 60 miles from the shore. It has only six life boats.

Attempts to free the frigate end in failure. On 5 July the order is given to abandon ship. 223 officers and dignitaries, including the governor and his family, make themselves comfortable in the life boats, and 149 of the crew and passengers squeeze onto a raft constructed in haste the night before. Through lack of space, 17 persons are abandoned on the Médusa, of which three are found alive and half mad 52 days later.

The raft endures two consecutive days of storms. Several men are swept into the sea. Seven soldiers, in utter despair, want to destroy the raft. Fights break out and the mutineers are thrown into the sea. On the third day the survivors begin eating the dead. More die and are cast overboard. By the seventh day, those injured with no chance of survival are likewise consigned to the deep. On the tenth day, several attempt suicide. Then, on the thirteenth day, a boat appears on the horizon. The vessel, the Argus, almost doesn't see them. It finally picks up the remaining survivors, reduced in number from 149 to just 15.

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Théodore Géricault painted his picture in 1818-1819, just 2-3 years after the disaster. It is a large canvas measuring 491 cms x 716 cm (193.3 in x 282.3 in). It was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1819 where it produced mixed impressions from the critics, some finding it distasteful, others praising it for its boldness and modernity. In 1820 the painting was exhibited in London, where it received more positive praise, and where it was seen by around 40,000 visitors. After the artist's death in 1824, the work was purchased by the Louvre in Paris, where it now resides.

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