History : May-Jun 2016
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 17 JOSEPH MARTIN/ALBUM in Rue des Martyrs, Paris, to a much larger space in Rue du Faubourg-du-Roule. The move was necessary: He was working on a huge canvas, measuring 22 by 17 feet, almost as big as the raft that inspired him. Another survivor of the shipwreck, a car- penter by trade, was commissioned by the artist to build a model of the raft ex- actly as he remembered it during those infernal 13 days. The artist placed great importance on the anatomical details of the bodies. The survivors, along with his disciple—the fellow Romantic painter Eugène Dela- croix—and his assistant, Louis-Alexis Jamar, all took part in extensive posing sessions. Géricault made lots of sketches in a nearby morgue to capture the precise color of amputated limbs and the rigid quality of the corpses. He even convinced a doctor friend to lend him body parts. According to his biographer, Charles Clé- ment, his studio smelled horribly. One of Géricault’s main concerns was his choice of precisely the right episode from the Méduse tragedy. He consid- ered portraying scenes of cannibalism but feared that subject could result in the painting’s being censored. In the end he selected a moment when the survivors sighted the ship that saved them, show- ing hope in contrast to extreme suffering. For eight months, from November 1818 to June 1819, the painter worked tirelessly. The only people he saw were his assis- tant and his housekeeper, who brought him food. Succès de Scandale The canvas went on display at the Sa- lon in Paris, which opened on August 25, 1819. At first it was known as “Scene of a Shipwreck” (its current title, which uti- lizes the Anglicized Medusa rather than Méduse, emerged later). The painting caused an immediate sensation. Despite its colorless, original title, no viewer could fail to recognize the story of the Méduse. Conservatives railed against the work’s supposed artistic errors and the “obscene” realism of the scene, far removed from the models of classical beauty. Liberals saw the painting as a cri- tique of the high-handedness of the new regime, reading it as a metaphor for the great national shipwreck of France itself. The depiction of a black sailor, featured prominently in the center of the paint- ing, also announced the painter’s political commitment at a time when the struggle against slavery and the black slave trade was intensifying. Its mix of realism, drama, and theatricality made the work a bench- mark for Romantic painting. As the crit- ic Count O’Mahony exclaimed on seeing it: “What a hideous spectacle, but what a beautiful picture!” — Dominique Kalifa A white dot on the horizon, the sails of the Argus are the survivors’ last hope. An African man standing on a barrel waves a rag to attract the attention of the approaching ship. An exhausted elderly man holds the corpse of a young man in his lap. The painting shows a total of 15 survivors and 5 corpses. History, Horror, and Hope Completed in 1819, Géricault’s great painting perfectly blends the authentic historical events with intense emotions.