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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 identified. It was the most widely discussed painting in an exhibition that also included two very notable works by Ingres which one might now think were more closely in tune with the taste of the time. But Ingres’s Grande Odalisque was universally condemned and his Roger and Angelica was almost universally ignored by the press. Accounts of Géricault’s work, both favorable and hostile, were published in all the Parisian papers and some of them were taken up outside France. The Italian public read of it in the leading Florentine intellectual periodical Antologia. English readers of Annals of the Fine Arts (which printed Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” in the same year) were informed that in The Raft of the Medusa “all is hideous and passive—not a trait of heroism or grandeur upon which the soul and eye can for one moment repose—nothing to indicate life and sensibility—nothing honourable to humanity. This picture is truly said to be a work to rejoice and glut the sight of vultures.”

Representing a group of men, young and old, black and white, some dead, others dying, a few tenaciously clinging to the hope of survival, gathered on a ramshackle raft adrift on a stormy sea, the picture is one of the most disturbing as well as the most immediately arresting of its period. It touches a chord deep down in the Western conscience. All the poetic images in which the sea symbolizes fate, death, and, above all, insanity, seem to have coalesced in this one extraordinary painting. It is as profoundly emotive as the terse epitaphs on drowned sailors in The Greek Anthology, the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or the heart-rendingly simple close of Cowper’s “The Cast-away”—

We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

It is, in fact, a portrayal of the human condition.

At the same time, the picture is a summation of the “great tradition” in European painting. For these nude or only partly clad life-size figures are the lineal descendants of Michelangelo and Rubens. Yet in subject as in treatment, The Raft of the Medusa marks the beginning of something new in European art and thought. Presenting a fresh attitude to the concept of beauty—a true variation du beau—it is a kind of overture to the romantic movement in French painting and, indeed, to the whole history of nineteenth-and twentieth-century art.

In the course of more than a century and a half, The Raft of the Medusa has lost little of its power to attract or to repel. Certainly, no one has ever been able to regard it with indifference. Hostile comments are numerous. Ingres wanted to have it removed from the Louvre and placed in some corner of the Ministère de la Marine where it could not corrupt public taste. “I don’t want any part of the Medusa and those other pictures of the dissecting room which show man as a corpse, which show only the ugly, the hideous,” he said. “No! I don’t want them! Art must be nothing but Beauty and teach us nothing but Beauty.” Other artists responded positively and several (including Fantin-Latour and Manet) painted copies of it. Even the English Pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt was impressed by its dramatic power though he sought in vain “for further grace either of human love or of artistic charm.”

Gradually the picture itself acquired a symbolic status. In a course of lectures suspended by the authorities of the tottering July monarchy in 1847, Jules Michelet cited it as a symbol of France—“C’est la France elle-même, c’est notre société toute entière qu’il embarqua sur ce radeau.” For the socialist P.J. Proudhon it was the most significant painting between David’s Dead Marat and the first realist works by Courbet, worth all the odalisques and apotheoses and Madonnas of Ingres. It also became a symbol of human endurance. “Thirst, Raft of the Medusa!” exclaimed T. E. Lawrence describing a desert trek. Still more recently the picture has inspired Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio Das Floss der Medusa. It also remains familiar enough for use by caricaturists. (At the time of a recent package-tour scandal in England a drawing of The Raft of the Medusa appeared in Punch above the caption: “I dread to think what the hotel will be like.”) No other painting of its period can be as widely known.

In his important and well illustrated monograph, Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” Professor Lorenz Eitner provides the fullest account of the painting ever to have appeared. He quotes extensively from the narrative of Savigny and Corréard, describes the evolution of the famous image, its critical reception and subsequent history (including its exhibition in London and Dublin in 1820 and 1821), though not exhaustively. Some of the interesting contemporary accounts go unmentioned. But we cannot have everything. We have certainly been given a very great deal in this excellent and perceptive book. My only complaint is that the book, which contains only sixty-seven pages of text, is far too elaborately produced and is consequently sold at a price that will effectively keep it out of the hands of those most likely to profit from it. All those who are interested in Géricault’s work will, however, be grateful for the large photographs of details from the painting itself as well as the illustrations of more than a hundred preliminary sketches and related studies, including the wonderfully vigorous and taut pen drawings of nude figures and those extraordinary paintings of severed heads and dismembered limbs which Delacroix called “the best argument for Beauty as it ought to be understood.”

The drawings and paintings related to The Raft of the Medusa raise peculiarly thorny problems of connoisseurship since few of them are documented. The many works sold from Géricault’s studio shortly after his death were only very briefly catalogued. No biography appeared until 1842 (when he had been dead for eighteen years) and no catalogue raisonné of his work until 1867 when Charles Clément published his Géricault, étude biographique et critique. In the meantime his work was being avidly collected—he had become very much a collector’s artist (characteristically he was represented in the collection of Balzac’s Cousin Pons). To feed this ever-increasing demand forgeries were put into circulation and sketches by contemporaries who had imitated his manner were passed off as “Géricaults.” Clément, whose eye seems to have been good, listed 400 works; by the 1950s some 2,000 paintings and drawings had at one time or another been ascribed to him.

To divide the genuine from the spurious calls for considerable expertise. Professor Eitner is the leading Géricault expert and has written many learned articles on him and his work. He was responsible for the notable Géricault exhibition shown last year at Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia. No one else is better able to identify Géricault’s sketches and studies for The Raft of the Medusa, and his full catalogue of them will surely win general acceptance. (A check list of rejects would, however, have been very useful.)

But Professor Eitner does not concern himself solely, or even mainly, with problems of connoisseurship in this book. His main aim is to show how, in sketch after brilliantly vivid sketch, Géricault gradually developed his idea for the composition and worked out its details in numerous figure studies drawn from life (the young Delacroix posed for one of them). The reader has the rare sensation of being in the artist’s studio—almost in his mind—and watching the slow, painful process of gestation as the picture takes shape. On the artistic effect of the finished work Professor Eitner is equally illuminating:

It was clearly Géricault’s purpose to draw the beholder into a close, empathetic participation with the action of his picture, and to make him feel the drama of the scene with his muscles as much as with his eyes. But this had to be accomplished by visual means. The accessibility of the raft and the nearness of the figures were to compel the viewer to place himself in the picture’s perspective. His eyes filled with the raft’s wide spread, his vision channeled by the gestures of the men before him, his attention irresistibly drawn to the point on which all motions converge, he was to be made to share the experience of the shipwrecked men.

Comparing it with the grandes machines of the Empire period which now hang near it in the Louvre, he remarks:

Its composition seems to consist entirely of nerve and muscle; surrounded by paintings sumptuously clothed in color, it appears naked: a giant écorché, forever in tension, galvanized by an effort without possible release.

Yet Professor Eitner fully appreciates Géricault’s debt to J. L. David and A.-J. Gros, indicating how The Raft of the Medusa “represented not so much a break with the School of David as a striking intensification of the realist and baroque elements in it at the expense of its classicism.”

It is abundantly clear that Géricault did not set out to overturn the tradition in which he had been trained even though he questioned some of its premises. His method of work, progressing from swiftly executed compositional sketches to meticulous figure studies drawn from life, was that adopted by David and all the notable neoclassical artists. Thus his work did not strike his contemporaries as revolutionary. On the contrary. In the 1819 Salon it was Ingres, not Géricault, who aroused hostility for his radical departure from the Davidian convention. The public was disturbed by the subject of Géricault’s painting, not its style. The subject alone seems to have prevented it from being acquired immediately for the Louvre. For the artistic establishment was anything but hostile to Géricault. He was awarded a gold medal for The Raft of the Medusa and given a commission for a large religious painting—which he passed on to the young Delacroix.

Within ten years The Raft of the Medusa came to be seen as a kind of “classic,” and a writer in the ultrareactionary Journal des Arts contrasted it favorably with Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. “The fate of great things is to be eternally parodied and perverted by imitators and continuers,” he wrote. “The religion of Christ, the writings of Chateaubriand, the painting of Géricault, have engendered in our time, among other bizarre and monstrous productions, the book of M. l’abbé de la Mennais (sic), the writings of M. Victor Hugo, and the paintings of M. Eugène Delacroix,” This anonymous classicist was, of course, correct in diagnosing the influence of The Raft of the Medusa on Delacroix. Many years later Delacroix recorded his initial reactions to it:

The impression it gave was so strong that as I left the studio I broke into a run, and kept running like a fool all the way back to rue de la Planche where I lived then, at the far end of the faubourg Saint-Germain.

Immediately after his death at the age of thirty-three in 1824, Géricault was characterized in a brief obituary notice as “un jeune romantique“—he appears to have been the first nineteenth-century artist thus described. By the 1830s he was generally recognized as, in Heinrich Heine’s words, “the initiator if not the founder of a new school of painting in France.” His tragically brief life with its mysterious undercurrents and his curiously elusive personality—a debonair manner concealing deep Byronic melancholy which led him to attempt suicide—provided a paradigm for the myth of the romantic artist. He was also a prototypical dandy in the Baudelairean sense of the term. Metaphorically, and often physically, the cast of his death mask presided over the studios of young Parisian painters of the 1830s and 1840s.

Like so many leading romantics, Géricault came of a fairly prosperous bourgeois family from which he inherited a measure of financial as well as spiritual independence. Throughout his career he had an annuity large enough to enable him to work as he wished—though not quite enough to indulge his fatal passion for highly bred horses. Financial security made it possible for him to devote several years to drawing and painting on his own account while projecting a series of major works. Ambition “to shine, to illuminate, to astonish the world”—to use his own words—encouraged him to select entirely original subjects and to work on the most grandiose scale.

The sheer size of The Raft of the Medusa—some fourteen by twenty-three feet—is not its least remarkable feature. A critic pertinently asked in 1819: “What public building, what royal palace or private collection will receive this painting?” European artists had been haunted by the desire to work on the heroic scale ever since the Renaissance, but never more so than in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the romantic period their preoccupation with size was in many ways comparable with the poets’ obsession with the larger-than-stage-sized drame (Faust or Cromwell). French painters had been given exceptional opportunities to work in the grand manner under the Empire, though only for the depiction of heroic themes of national significance such as Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa and Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau. The Raft of the Medusa is on exactly the same scale as these great pictures by A.-J. Gros. But unlike them it represents a scene of ambiguous heroism and controversial significance. It is, Professor Eitner remarks, “as if Géricault had taken the foreground of misery from one of Gros’s pictures and omitted the apotheosis above.”

The grand style, hitherto used to depict only grand themes—the life of Christ and the Saints, the exploits of Greek and Roman heroes, the deeds of emperors and kings—was adopted by Géricault to depict the sufferings of ordinary people who had no hope of fame or reward in this world or the next. The incident he chose from the story of the shipwreck is highly significant. He began by considering several possible scenes—the mutiny which took place after the raft had been adrift for two days, the survivors eating the bodies of their dead companions, or the more obvious moments when the raft was cut adrift, or when it was finally rescued. But he rejected all these in favor of a subject of greater psychological tension, showing the survivors sighting a distant ship and rallying all their strength to signal it. This painful moment was described by Corréard and Savigny:

For about half an hour we were suspended between hope and fear; some thought they saw the ship become larger, and others affirmed that its course carried it away from us: these latter were the only ones whose eyes were not fascinated by hope, for the brig disappeared. From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief; we envied the fate of those whom we had seen perish at our side.

In depicting this false dawn of hope rather than the finality of rescue—when the survivors were surprised by the return of the brig some hours later—Géricault gave his picture an ambiguity which must surely have been intentional.

The men on the raft of the Medusa were not heroes in any normal sense of the word. No Spartan courage or Stoic self-control was displayed by any of them; they had behaved as men all too frequently do in moments of crisis, and those that survived did so simply from a ruthless will to live. They had suffered atrociously but in no good or noble cause; they were victims of jobbery and incompetence rather than of human or divine malevolence. But by painting them according to the conventions of the grand style, showing them with the physiques of Greek athletes and not as they had appeared when rescued—bearded, emaciated, covered with sores and wounds—Géricault raised their plight to a level of universal significance. He drew from the incident an ambiguous comment on the human condition.

In La Confession d’un enfant du siècle, Alfred de Musset records the youth of France saying in the years after the Restoration: “There is no more love. There is no more glory. A thick night covers the earth. And we shall be dead before the dawn.” Géricault seems to have shared this feeling, but without Musset’s sobbing self-pity. He represented the survivors of the raft as dispassionately as he had painted a wounded cuirassier retreating from the battlefield in 1814, or drawn, for a lithograph, soldiers on the retreat from Moscow. After Waterloo the glory of victory was tarnished. Endurance, rather than heroism, was admired. Some French writers and artists seem almost to have come to prefer the acrid bitterness of failure to the cloying sweetness of success.

The men in The Raft of the Medusa are closely related to all those defeated soldiers, imprisoned revolutionaries, misunderstood men of genius, mocked artists and writers, who recur in romantic art and literature. (Significantly, Géricault himself was to be cast in such a role even by the otherwise reliable Clément who stated, quite erroneously, that The Raft of the Medusa was universally condemned when first exhibited. By Clément’s time contemporary failure had become almost a prerequisite for posthumous success.)

In painting The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault accepted most of the conventions of the grand style while challenging the validity of the subject matter to which it had traditionally been applied. In this way he invited, indeed all but compelled, the public to question its attitudes to the perennial human problems of heroism, hope, despair, and suffering. The painting itself presents a necessarily ambiguous answer which could not be expressed in any other visual terms, still less in words. Hence the width of interpretation which can be placed on this great work of art and, also, its continuing relevance, its strange power to engage our feelings and disturb our thoughts.

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