The Painting That Shocked the World

Steven Gambardella
Aug 11, 2018 · 13 min read
The Raft of Medusa (1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault (Credit: Wikicommons)

Can art change the world?

People often talk about the ‘power of art’ and by that they often mean power as a subjective experience, the power of art to move. Art historians also understand art in terms of the power it imbues — the art adorned on the walls of palaces and even banks is like the purple robe of an emperor: it speaks of money, prestige and even domination. But in those two respects art doesn’t have much “power” at all.

The power in both cases is external (extrinsic) to the art. In the former case it only has power over any given individual and the measure of that subjective power therefore varies from person to person. It’s therefore a power that’s dependent on the baggage that comes with each person. The same goes for art as an “adornment” or “signifier” of power - it is contingent on the prerequisite real-world power with which it has a mutually beneficial relationship.

In both cases, art is not really changing anything. So how could art change the world? Such a power would be intrinsic — or inherent — in the art, not extrinsic or dependent on other kinds of power. When we look at certain dramatic moments in the history of art we very quickly realise that art does have the power to change the world to a greater or lesser extent. That power resides in art’s ability to reframe and refocus. I can explain….

We have lived in a world saturated by visual culture for hundreds of years. For the most part the purpose of that culture, broadly speaking, serves to tell us a story. It’s the story of who we are and what our place is in the world. Most of this culture — 99.9% of it — is anodyne, innocuous and beige, it simply conforms to the story we are led to believe is the right one, it makes us feel secure and safe and sometimes righteous.

Most religious art and the art of the state and advertising is that kind of culture: it reflects a reality that simultaneously makes us sure of our place in the world and conforms to the world view of the powers that be. Occasionally artists kick against conformity and show us a different kind of reality - a reality that makes us uncomfortable, that perhaps shows the world slipping from the grip of the powers that be.

In the Louvre in Paris you’ll find an example of such a work: a work that shocked, aroused debate, that gave the establishment a bloody nose. It’s The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault. To explore the intrinsic power of this monumental painting, it’s first worth examining the story of its genesis: the story of La Méduse.

A Nation with Little Hope

After the defeat of Napoleon and his forced exile in 1814, the revolutionary Republic was destroyed and the Bourbon Dynasty restored. King Louis XVIII took his place on the French throne with the support of the British, who believed he could restore peace in Europe.

Contrary to this expectation, Louis XVIII was briefly deposed again during the “Hundred Days” in 1815, when Napoleon returned from exile to fight again (he was finally defeated by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo). The shock of the Hundred Days compelled the British to help Louis XVIII consolidate power over his nation by handing over the captured port of Saint-Louis, a rich trading post on the coast of Senegal, in 1816.

The 40-gun frigate Medusa (La Méduse) fought briefly in the Napoleonic wars but after the restoration the ship was repurposed and given a non-military mission. The vessel was part of a flotilla of four ships to take officials of the new regime to the colony. On board were around 400 people including soldiers, settlers and the governor designate of Senegal.

Louis XVIII by François Gérard. The Bourbon Dynasty was restored to the throne of France after the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814 (Wikicommons)

The ship was captained by the 53 year old Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, an aristocrat and old royalist émigré who had not been at sea for twenty years. Despite his lack of experience, de Chaumareys was given the captaincy of this important mission by the King simply for being a loyal royalist.

A couple of hundred miles off the coast of Africa the ship ran aground and became stuck in a sandbank. A huge makeshift raft was constructed for the ship to jettison cargo in order to free itself. But when a storm came and the crew feared the ship would break up, the captain ordered an immediate evacuation. However, there was a problem: the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats.

A plan was made for the travellers with higher social status — including the captain, of course — to be transported on the few lifeboats while 146 men and one woman were towed on the huge raft that was intended for cargo. For sustenance, those 147 people were given a bag of biscuits, two casks of water and six casks of wine.

The sheer weight of all those people caused the raft to submerge and food was thrown into the sea to lighten the load. What happened next is still a shocking event in French history, a horror among the horrors of colonialism.

Nobody knows for sure, but it is thought that the lifeboats -loaded up as they were with VIPs- panicked when it was thought that the raft would slow them down too much. The ropes were cut at some point leaving the raft, laden with the 147 people, adrift at sea.

When the raft was picked up thirteen days later, only fifteen men had survived and five died soon after. The people left adrift on the raft were already hungry and thirsty at the moment the ropes were cut. They chewed their belts to stave off hunger, they started to fight over the meagre supplies controlled by the officers.

When the casks of wine had been finished, there was a drunken mutiny, dozens of men were shot and stabbed, halving the number of those alive in just one night. During the skirmishes, what was left of the water was lost. The weak and dying were thrown overboard. Eventually, when despair set in, the taboo of cannibalism was broken and men began to eat the bodies of the dead.

The stories told by two of the survivors became an international scandal at a time that the nation was very uncomfortable with the restored regime. Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed, but the lingering feeling was that the Medusa incident was a metaphor for the French nation in the post-Napoleonic years: a nation ruined by incompetence and greed, a defeated nation with little hope.

Géricault’s Raft

Théodore Géricault, a promising young painter at the time, decided that the incident was going to be the subject of his most ambitious painting. He had read the testimony of two of the survivors and was as outraged by the tale of callousness and incompetence as much of French society was at the time.

He had for the most part taught himself in the Louvre, where he copied the works of renaissance and baroque masters, and the stables of Versailles, where he studied the anatomy of horses. This mostly self-led education enabled Géricault to make a name for himself as a painter of equestrian scenes.

Géricault had a minor reputation in 1818 when he began the work. He had exhibited successfully at the Paris Salon in 1812 but less successfully in 1814. The disappointment he had experienced as an exhibitor at the 1814 Salon led him to briefly join the army.

Before the Raft of Medusa, Géricault had built a reputation with equestrian paintings. The Wounded Cuirassier (1814) painted weeks after the defeat of Napoleon, wasn’t as favorably received as his more triumphant The Charging Chasseur of 1812. (Wikicommons)

The ‘Paris Salon’ was the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, open to artists from all over the world. In other words, the Paris Salon was 19th century art’s equivalent to what the Fifa World Cup is to soccer now.

It was the most prestigious regular showcase of contemporary art at the time, a ticketed event that the well-heeled public flocked to and one that generated a huge amount of debate on matters from history and taste to politics and censorship.

In the minds of many artists, a critical triumph at the Salon was a triumph in the eyes of the entire art world.

Upon his return to painting, Géricault made painstaking plans to immortalise the shipwreck in vivid detail for the 1819 Salon. He interviewed survivors, visited morgues to make studies and took body parts back to his apartment - including a severed head from a lunatic asylum, of which he made several famous studies in preparation for his painting.

Study for the Raft of Medusa (Wikicommons)

A scale model of the raft was constructed in Géricault’s studio with the help of three survivors, one of whom was a carpenter on the ship. The moment the artist chose to depict was the moment that the Argus, another ship in the flotilla to Senegal, suddenly appeared on the horizon. The last remaining survivors attempted to signal the ship but it passed by. Of this moment one of the survivors wrote:

‘From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief.’

As it happens, the Argus did return and eventually rescued the last remaining survivors.

The Painting was finished in 1819, when Géricault was only 27 years old and exhibited at the Paris Salon with the title “The Scene of a Shipwreck”. It was a generic title but nobody was left under the illusion that this was a scene of anything but the raft of the Medusa. The painting even depicts Henri Savigny, the ship’s surgeon (standing by the sail in the painting), who wrote the testimony that scandalised France. He had posed on the reconstructed raft in Géricault’s studio.

It was a monumental painting, enormous in fact. About 5 by 7 meters — 16 by 23 feet — with over-life sized figures in the foreground of the scene. It’s almost like standing in front of a cinema screen.

Images of refugees adrift at sea and dead on the shores of Europe like this one by Sergey Ponomarev have shocked and shamed audiences into political action. Refugees arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos (The New York Times/Sergey Ponomarev. Low res fair use)

The stage, so to speak, was set. The painting gained the immediate notoriety that the painter had been hoping for. It was seen as an indictment of a corrupt regime and caused an enormous stir at the often crowded salon. Many were fiercely critical of the painting gratuitous morbidity and modern style, but republicans were supportive. The historian Jules Michelet said of the painting: “our whole society is aboard the raft of Medusa.”

The gory details

What made the painting effective was not the subject matter alone. Géricault meticulously planned the execution of the painting to have a number of dramatic effects on its audience.

For example, the raft is tipped up a little by a wave to give the painting an immersive power. Right in the bottom centre of the canvas is the corner of the raft, and it gives you the feeling that you could step onto it. This staging, and the sheer scale of the paining, intended to impress on the crowded room of the salon and it certainly does that to this day.

The composition is arranged into two pyramids made up of figures, one closer and one further from you the viewer. There is a pronounced diagonal across the painting, from the bodies of the dead and the despondent mourners across the bottom and to the left to the standing men on the upper right of the picture who have sighted the Argus and are waving frantically.

Géricault went to extreme lengths in this preparations, including from-life studies of body parts and severed heads that he kept on the roof of his apartment. (Wikicommons)

The colours are murky and dark, mostly browns. The sea is depicted in deep greens. The lighter tones are of pallid flesh and the pale light of dawn on the horizon. Géricault makes use of a style called “tenebrism” where dark tones and shadows are dominant but with dramatically contrasting effects of light. The effect of tenebrism has its origins in the Italian master Caravaggio, who revolutionised painting in the 17th century with his often shocking realistic portrayal of biblical scenes.

It is known that Géricault had traveled to Rome in the years before he painted the Raft of the Medusa and would have seen many of Caravaggio’s paintings in the grand baroque churches where they are confined. Géricault clearly borrows Caravaggio’s particularly dramatic use of light.

The weather is stormy and a large threatening wave is rolling towards the raft from the behind, this is all despite the fact that on the morning that the Argus was sighted, the weather was clear and calm. Géricault is being manipulative, he’s constructing a staging that guides our emotional response.

It’s not just the depiction of the weather that is misleading, Géricault drew on art history to aid his emotional construction. The figures of the living and some of the dying are muscular -even idealised- and evocative of the heroic figures of classical painting and sculpture, not of the starving.

The painting has one foot within the tradition of Neoclassicism, the style of art that flourished in France in the aftermath of the revolution. Neoclassicism was pretty much the opposite style from the preceding Rococo, which was a florid, often frivolous and complex style favoured by the French aristocracy.

Neoclassicism took its inspiration from the art of ancient Rome and Athens, those other great democratic republics. It was serious, austere and heroic, often resembling the statuary and friezes of ancient Rome. Géricault was immersed in the neoclassical style, it was practically the official style of the French state at the time.

It was also the style in which so called “history paintings” were produced, that is, paintings that depict historical scenes with a moral to impart. History painting was the eminent genre of painting at the time, the kind of painting that would carry moral and philosophical weight as well as technical sophistication.

Towards the bottom left is a father mourning his son, two figures inspired by Roman sculpture (of Patroclus held by Menelaus). Géricault used the common effects of this style to impart “seriousness” to his message.

The painting also takes inspiration from a style that was emerging at the time: Romanticism.

Romanticism was a style that evoked the sublime power of nature, the smallness of mankind, it was emotional and hysterically dramatic, a reaction to the rationalisation of nature through the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Géricault admired the Baroque master Rubens, a whose opulent and highly stylised paintings served as a template for the romantic movement.

And so the Raft of the Medusa is a synthesis of the two styles. It is perhaps the first painting to truly import the romantic style into the French artistic scene. It does so by using the neoclassical history painting template to depict a contemporary scene of man’s confrontation with nature. Infact, one of the sailors depicted in the centre foreground of the painting, with his head bowed down to the viewer is Géricault’s young friend Eugene Delacroix, who became one of the most celebrated romantic painters.

Under the makeshift mast at the centre of the composition and forming the apex of the nearest compositional pyramid are from-life depictions of the men who brought the story back to France.

We have, then, this weird juxtaposition of contemporary and timeless, classically rendered, characters in the painting. It’s as if the Neoclassical format of the painting was a Trojan horse of sorts, a way of sneaking the scandal of the contemporary world into the art gallery by meeting its standards of style and seriousness.

The further compositional pyramid is the most extraordinary part. On the far-off horizon we see the Argus, and a group of figures are using a barrel to signal to the distant ship. At the apex of this group of figures is an african man, taking the lead in signalling to a ship with his shirt in his hand.

The decisive role of black men in the picture, and the placement of a black man at the very top of the composition, would have been shocking in France at the time. It’s highly likely that Géricault had abolitionist sympathies this was perhaps his way of making it known through his art, in an oblique yet pointed way.

An African man takes on the most decisive role in the painting, at the apex of a compositional pyramid. (Wikicommons)

The picture was both commended and condemned: it won a medal at the Salon but no buyer came forward for the controversial work. When the exhibition ended, Géricault cut the canvas from its frame, rolled the painting up, and unceremoniously sent it to be stored at a friend’s home. He lamented over the painting, saying: “It’s not worth looking at. I shall do better.”

Gericault went on to paint portraits of the most marginalised people in French society: the mentally and physically sick, the poor and the criminal. The Raft of Medusa was still left unsold but went on a tour of sorts to England where shocked revellers gawped at its naked and dying bodies. A replica was painted and shipped to the United States for the same reason: an appetite for the morbid details of France’s worst naval catastrophe. Even theatre productions of the incident took inspiration from the painting. For the subsequent years after its debut, the painting continued to be a controversial embarrassment to France’s royalist establishment.

Insane Woman (1822). After the Raft of Medusa caused a sensation at the Salon, Géricault began to paint portraits of the marginalised and mentally ill. (Wikicommons)

In January 1824 Géricault died at the age of 32. In September of the same year King Louis XVIII died. It was only in this new political climate that the Louvre made the decision to acquire the work for its collection where it still hangs prominently as a testament to the intrinsic power of art to change the world, even if only a little; the power of art to speak to power.

The writing was on the wall for the Bourbon monarchy in France, Louis’s replacement, the unpopular Charles X, was overthrown in the second revolution of 1830 and replaced by a constitutional monarchy more acceptable to the lower and middle classes of France. In 1848, during a wave of unrest that swept across Europe, France once again became a republic.

Fin.

Thank you for reading.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Steven Gambardella

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I write about philosophy, art and history and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Get in touch: stevengambardella [at] gmail [dot] com.

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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