Unsinkable Painting

Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa”

by Lorenz Eitner
Praeger, 184, 158 illus pp., $35.00

On July 2, 1816, a French government frigate, La Méduse, carrying troops to Senegal, ran aground on the West African coast. The captain and senior officers commandeered the few seaworthy lifeboats, while the rest of the passengers and crew—149 men and one woman—were cast adrift on a make-shift raft, with some barrels of wine but very little food or drinking water. The occupants of this raft fought among themselves. Many were killed, some died of starvation, others lost their minds and were cast overboard. Eventually driven to the horror of cannibalism and, to supplementing the supply of wine with urine, fifteen men survived for thirteen days, and five of them died shortly after they were rescued.

One of the ten men who returned to France, Henry Savigny, a surgeon, wrote an account of the disaster which was published in a prominent Paris newspaper. It caused a sensation. Furthermore, since the captain of La Méduse was a returned émigré who had owed his post to the protection of the ultraroyalist minister of the navy, the story became a political scandal. For the wreck of La Méduse could be, and was, presented by the opposition as a symbol of the plight of France under the restored Bourbon monarchy. The government did its best to hush up the affair. But Savigny was not easily muzzled. In collaboration with another survivor, Alexandre Corréard, he told the whole horrifying story in full and gruesome detail in a book which had an immediate success, went into a second edition after a few months, and was promptly translated into English. On the strength of it Corréard set up a publishing firm with a shop called Au naufragé de la Méduse, which became a rallying point for political malcontents.

Shipwrecks were common occurrences in the early nineteenth century, and scandals which rocked the Restoration government were not infrequent, so the incident might well have sunk eventually into the limbo of footnotes to naval and political histories—had it not been for Géricault, who made it the subject of his largest and best-known painting, exhibited at the Salon of 1819 and acquired shortly after his death in 1824 for the Louvre, where it has hung ever since. Géricault’s painting kept the incident alive. Thus when, in 1839, a dramatic reconstruction of the story was staged at the Ambigu Comique in Paris, one scene was a tableau vivant derived from Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It is a tribute to the power of his painting that even in the present century naval historians have continued to investigate and publish accounts of the wreck of La Méduse (the most recent being a book of 1946 and an article of 1965).

Initially, of course, it was the scandal of the incident that made Géricault’s painting famous, not the other way around, as happened later. When shown at the Salon of 1819 it was catalogued simply as a “scene of shipwreck,” but its precise subject was immediately …

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