Théodore Géricault and “Le Radeau de la Méduse"


26 September 1791, the French painter Théodore Géricault was born in Rouen.
 
“Géricault allowed me tо see hіs Raft оf Medusa while he wаs still working оn it. Іt made sо tremendous аn impression оn me thаt when I came оut оf the studio I started running lіke а madman аnd did nоt stop till I reached my own room.” (Eugène Delacroix)


 Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault’s “Le Radeau de la Méduse", now at the Louvre


In July 1816, politicos and make-beliefs playing sailors caused one of the most infamous shipwrecks in naval history, when they ran the French 40 gun frigate “Medusa” 
aground off the coast of West Africa. En route to Senegal for the handover of the colony from the British after the Congress of Vienna, "Medusa” had 240 passengers in addition to her crew on board. When she struck a reef at high tide, her commander decided to evacuate, placing the crew in the long boats while most of the passengers rode on an improvised raft. During the attempt to reach the African coast 60 miles away, the raft was deliberately abandoned and what followed was one of the more uglier scenes in human co-existence - after 8 days lost at sea, of the 146 passengers on the raft only 15 survived. The post-war Bourbon government tried to cover up the scandal and capitaine de frégate, Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, whose only qualification for the job was being an aristo and a staunch royalist, got away with three years in jail, even if he broke almost every single item of contemporary maritime conduct except perhaps holding church services on Sundays, weather permitting. However, the gruesome fate of the Raft of the Medusa would be known almost 200 years later only to naval historians if it weren’t for a young Romantic painter whose skill and power of imagination captured the scenes on the raft and climaxed the tale into a scene of Dantean proportions.



"La Méduse" sailing close hauled with brigs in the background


Staring for hours with an open mouth at Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt in the Louvre is certainly a qualification for a Romantic mind and as an artist, young Géricault simply had to follow suit. Indifferent to the classicist proportions and subjects taught in art classes, his first major work, the “Charging Chasseur”, painted about the time when Napoleon invaded Russia, transposes the popular equestrian motif of soldiery making portentous gestures while seated on a rearing horse from Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassicistic gravitas into a fluid drama à la Rubens, bathed in the scenic illumination of sunlight breaking through the gun smoke of a battlefield, democratising the dramatis personae from the future emperor and his charger Nicole to one of the men who actually fought, a lieutenant of the régiment de chasseurs à cheval de la Garde impériale. Géricault’s paradigmatic change of almost everything official art of the First Empire under the aegis of its patriarch David represented was not exactly met with lasting success though. Disappointed, the young painter joined the army and had more than enough opportunities for first hand studies of the arms, man and beast and produced some remarkable results that became beacons for the Romantic movement in France. But his efficacious masterpiece was, without doubt, the "Le Radeau de la Méduse", “Raft of the Medusa”. 



Théodore Géricault: “Les trois crânes“ (1812 – 1814)


Enamoured with the black depths of the human soul, lunacy and death like a good Romantic should, Géricault drank in the according influence of Raphael and Michelangelo, ablated the more dramatic elements from his contemporaries Vernet and David, combined them with his own studies of madness, life and the demise of his fellow human beings. 
Géricault even reconstructed the raft and placed his friends on it to re-enact the macabre seascape, and, after several studies, he finished his Romantic masterpiece in 1819, showing the moment when the people on the raft saw a sail on the horizon that slowly disappeared, described to the artist by a survivor: "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief". His royal Bourbon majesty Louis XVIII, whose government was ultimately responsible for the disaster off Senegal, saw the painting at the Paris Salon when it was first shown and remarked regally: "Monsieur, vous venez de faire un naufrage qui n'en est pas un pour vous", Monsieur Géricault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster. Indeed, it became a milestone of 19th century art and Géricault, who died six years later from tuberculosis at the age of 32, had become one of the most important pioneers of art of his age.



Théodore Géricault “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac”
from his series "Les Monomanes" (Portraits of the Insane, 1822)