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Louvre: Gericault – The Raft of the Medusa

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Gericault - The Raft of the Medusa

Denon wing – 1st floor – Mollien – Room 77

In 1816 the frigate Medusa, sailing to Senegal, was separated by the storm, off the coast of Morocco, the flotilla she escorted, and ran aground on the bench of Arguin, near Cape Blanc. After vain efforts to replenish the ship, the shipwrecked had to abandon it. The canoes being insufficient for the soldiers and the crew, they built a large raft with which it was hoped, in tow of the boats, to reach the coast. But during the night the men of the canoes loosely cut the towing cables and abandoned the unfortunate people on the raft to their fate. Then began this frightful drama, which had remained famous in the splendor of the sea. For twenty-seven days the shipwrecked were tossed on the waves of the ocean; the provisions and the water ran out; hunger, thirst, madness acting on these terrified beings, scenes of horror and carnage took place, of which two of the survivors, Correard and Savigny, left us the Danteque relation. When, finally, the Argus corvette saw the signals, there remained only fifteen survivors on the tragic raft.

It is this terrible drama of the sea that Géricault resolved to paint upon his return from Rome. His project also mingled a thought foreign to art. The opposition having exploited this shipwreck against the government of Louis XVIII., the painter was sure, by choosing such a subject, to draw on him the general attention, and perhaps he hoped for some advantage from the scandal he would produce. But he had too much respect for his art to entrust only the passions to the care of his glory; he neglected nothing to make a moving and beautiful work. Correard and Savigny told him the slightest details of the tragedy; he sets the raft according to the instructions of the carpenter, also a survivor, who built it. Obliged to paint corpses and dying, he went to the hospital Beaujon to surprise at the bedside of patients the pangs of death. As for the pale sky of his canvas and the livid hue of his waves, he painted them after nature, on a stormy day, on the beach at Le Havre.

In spite of this careful need for documentary truth, there was too much ardor and vigor at Géricault’s for the sinking of the Medusa to remain a mere summary of the disaster; he has introduced the immensity of despair, the horror of death, and also that savage energy which binds man to life and makes him avidly scrutinize this moving horizon, where, suddenly, salvation can arise. When it comes to fixing the composition, Géricault hesitated a long time. He tried successively several episodes: he rejected that of the rescue because of the lack of unity that would have presented the canvas with the double group of the raft and the life-saving ship; the episode of the wrestling between the castaways held him back more and he made a sketch very beautiful and very thorough, but, again, it seemed to him that the scattering of melee on the whole extent of the raft would be inharmonic. He finally made up his mind for the magnificent painting we reproduce, where the unfortunate prostrates, waiting for death, are simultaneously concentrated on the same point, and those who have just seen a sail on the horizon and who frantically call it waving cloths.

Géricault was not deceived in discounting the noise that his canvas would make. When she appeared at the Salon of 1819, she raised a real storm. Acclaimed by the liberals, it was vilified by government supporters and even more by the Davidians. “By one of those blinds which posterity scarcely realizes, although it is renewed at the appearance of each original genius, this masterpiece was generally considered detestable. One did not feel this poignant poetry in its reality; we remained insensitive to the dramatic effect of this livid sky, of this sinisterly murky sea crushing its foam over the corpses tossed between the beams of the raft and shaking with its enormous shoulder this frail floor, theater of agony and despair: this science of muscular force, this force of color, this breadth of touch, this grandiose energy, reminiscent of Michelangelo, only aroused disdain and reprobation.” (Théophile Gautier).

The State did not want to buy the painting, despite the efforts of the director of the Museums, Count de Forbin. Nevertheless Géricault obtained a gold medal, and Louis XVIII, by handing it to him, kindly said: “Monsieur Géricault, you have just made a shipwreck that is not one for you.”

After the premature death of the artist, his heirs wanted to cut the painting into four pieces, because its size made the placement difficult. This time the Comte de Forbin succeeded in saving the canvas, and acquired it at the price of 6,000 francs on behalf of the State; this magnificent masterpiece was not dismembered, and today the Raft of Medusa, the glory of the French school, radiates, admired by all, on the broad wall that it covers.

Height: 4.91 – Width: 7.46 – Life-size figures.

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