History : May-Jun 2016
16 MAY/JUNE 2016 MILESTONES JORGE ROYAN/ALAMY/ACI JOSEPH MARTIN/ALBUM GÉRICAULT’S TOMB in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, is adorned with a bas- relief of the painting that shot the young artist to fame. week later only 28 survivors remained, many of them sick, wounded, and men- tally exhausted by the ordeal. To enhance their own chances of survival, a group decided to throw 13 more overboard. After 13 days, the last 15 survivors on the raft at last sighted their rescue. It was from the flotilla that had set sail with the Méduse, and which had already reached Saint-Louis. Chaumareys, who had also managed to get there in a lifeboat, had sent it back to try to recover equipment. In 1817 two of the expedition’s survi- vors, Jean-Baptiste Savigny, a surgeon, and Alexandre Corréard, an engineer and geographer, published an account of what happened on the raft, The Wreck of the Frigate Méduse. They denounced the captain’s negligence and cowardice, as well as the atrocities committed by the terrified, drunken sailors. The book un- leashed a wave of revulsion across France. Liberal opponents of the Bourbon regime used the affair to denounce the restored monarchy’s incompetence. The naval minister was forced to resign. For his ineptitude and indifference, Chaumar- eys was court-martialed and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Painting History Amid this indignation, a 27-year-old artist decided to immortalize the ep- isode. Théodore Géricault had already won critical acclaim, but he had just lost a fellowship that would have enabled him to keep studying painting. He needed an eye-catching subject to relaunch his ca- reer, and what better than the Méduse? Géricault set about his task method- ically. He met two of the castaways and based his initial sketches on their ac- counts. He transferred from his studio SELF-PORTRAIT BY GÉRICAULT. OIL ON CANVAS, 1808 DYING YOUNG CRITICISM OF “THE RAFT OF THE MEDUSA” convinced Géricault his work was a failure. He left for England, where he took up equestrian painting. After his return to France, he was commissioned by the famous psychia- trist Georget to make portraits of the mentally ill. The bril- liant painter died in January 1824, at the tender age of 32.