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The Raft of Medusa: 200 Years of a Masterpiece

Olivia Hicks traces the fascinating story behind - and surprising contemporaneity of - the famous painting celebrated at the Louvre last month

There are around 35,000 artworks in the Louvre, though of course nobody goes and sees them all. Or even anywhere close – most of us queue, check out the five or so things we’re there for, wander around a bit, then head off. Which pieces specifically will vary, person to person, but The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault is usually included: an oil painting of enormous proportions, which celebrated its 200th birthday on the 25th of last month.

The Raft of the Medusa was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1819, when Géricault was still relatively young (just twenty-seven). It’s a shipwreck scene, two pyramids of human figures, most dead, on a raft amid stormy waves. In the distance; a tiny ship, the small hope of rescue.

The painting was presented under the vague title ‘Scène de Naufrage’, but this fooled no-one; Géricault had quite clearly depicted the wreck of the French warship Méduse, which had run aground two years before. This caused murmurs and no small amount of controversy within the Academy, because the wreck of the Medusa was not a simple maritime accident – it was intensely political.

In 1816, shortly after the restoration of the French monarchy, France was preparing to take the port of Saint-Louis, in Senegal, from the British. The frigate Méduse set sail for the coast of Africa, carrying military men and their families, who would run the new colony. On the 2nd of July, she ran aground.

The Méduse hit the rock at high-tide and so couldn’t be re-floated. Passengers began to construct a sixty-foot life raft as a means of escape. When a storm threatened the integrity of the Méduse, 147 passengers climbed onto the raft: the plan was that the ships’ few lifeboats could tow the raft to shore. The lifeboat crews, however, worried that those on the raft would soon panic and start clambering onto the boats, overloading and overwhelming them. They cut the ties to the raft and sailed on to shore.

Things on the raft turned horrific pretty quickly. Thirst, suicide, drowning, murders, cannibalism. By the time the raft was found on the 17th of July, just fifteen men were still alive, and five died shortly after rescue.  The horrified response of the French people moved from a specific criticism of the incompetent captain, to a wider criticism of the Bourbon monarchy – the captain’s appointment was far more due to his monarchism than any of his seafaring capabilities. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa was more than a lament for the lost souls of the raft; it was targeted at the French establishment.

The Raft of the Medusa is so engaging because Géricault’s method was meticulous and morbid, to the point of the unhinged. If you are chilled by the deathly pallor of the corpses splayed across the raft, there is a reason why. He frequented the hospital morgue opposite his studio, he took limbs to his studio to copy, and acquired a severed head from a convict to do the same.

Géricault made himself as familiar as possible with the real events that inspired the masterpiece: he met with survivors of the raft, he read the published account of the wreck, he commissioned a carpenter of the Méduse to build a model of the raft in his studio. If it seems obsessive, well, it obviously worked: it’s very difficult to look at The Raft of the Medusa and deny it the centre-of-stage place it’s received in art history.

The painting is known as an example of French Romanticism, a monumental work early on in the movement, but the painting’s social and political influence is arguably just as strong. The Raft of the Medusa is often touted as an abolitionist piece – Géricault met with prominent British abolitionists when he toured The Raft of the Medusa here. When he died, aged only thirty-two, he was working on another monumental piece, titled The African Slave Trade. Géricault certainly draws attention to the black soldiers on the raft, focusing particularly on one black man, held aloft, waving desperately at the ship on the horizon. Of the final fifteen survivors of the raft, only one was black, though Géricault has painted three. Géricault’s inclusion of black figures in The Raft of the Medusa is intentional, significant.

There is a danger of oversimplification – abolitionism often sat alongside racist sentiments and didn’t necessarily entail anti-colonialism. But many have chosen to understand race in art through The Raft of the Medusa, and this has become an undeniable aspect of its legacy. Toni Morrison saw relationships of race, human movement, and despair in The Raft of The Medusa as part of her The Foreigner’s Home exhibition at the Louvre. The painting also features prominently in the music video for The Carters’ APESHIT, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s takeover of the museum. Jay-Z casts an impressive figure in front of the painting, and the music video focuses on the detail of the black sailor waving his flag to the faraway ship.

While there is the temptation to view death at sea as belonging to a lost time, a Romantic, archaic way to die, this is of course not true. In fact, after just a moment’s consideration, the relevance of the Romantic masterpiece to the present is painfully obvious: the passengers who were safe in lifeboats, became convinced that they were threatened by those in peril, and their response was to condemn them to the sea rather than offer them the help they were more than able to offer. Banksy stencilled a miniature version of the Raft of the Medusa onto a wall in Calais in 2017, one of three works in direct protest of the handling of Syrian refugees in the French port.

A 200-year-old painting is never going to be a substitute for policy, but the age of Gericault’s work has in no way dimmed the empathy and horror The Raft of the Medusa imparts on its viewer. What art can do is remind us that this is a crisis of life: the they-are-human-ness of politicised disaster.

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