On July 5, 1816
, the passengers and crew of the shipwrecked French frigate Méduse
abandoned 147 people on a makeshift raft
in a gale off the coast of Africa. When the raft was found 13 days later only 15 people were still alive. The incident inspired Théodore Géricault's painting Le Radeau de la Méduse
(The Raft of the Medusa
).June 17, 1816: Méduse
, France with about 400 people on board en route to Saint-Louis
in Senegal. Méduse
travelled in a convoy with the storeship Loire
, the brig Argus
, and the corvette Écho
. The convoy was commanded by Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a political appointee who hadn't sailed in over 20 years. Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz
the incoming colonial governor of Senegal, was the most prominent passenger. (Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo the previous year and England, which had earlier captured Senegal, was returning the colony to the restored French monarchy.)
the convoy reached Madeira
showing Rochefort, Madeira, and St. Louis.)
July 1: Méduse
crossed the Equator and celebrated
with a line-crossing ceremony
After taking a route
that was too close to shore, the ship ran aground on a sandbank in 18 fathoms of water on the Banc d'Arguin
about 30 miles (50km) off the coast of what's now Mauritania. The crew built a raft from the ship's masts and planks (about 65 feet by 23 feet or 20m x 7m; about the size of a tennis court), initially to lighten the ship's load so the ship could rise off the sandbank.
A high tide came close to lifting the Méduse
off the bottom, and the ship probably could have been freed if they had jettisoned the artillery, but the captain refused to give the order.
A gale developed and Méduse
began to show signs of breaking up. The ship's lifeboats would only hold about 250 people, and were taken by the captain, most of the ship's officers, and other VIPs. Geographer Alexandre Corréard and surgeon Jean-Baptiste-Henri Savigny joined 155 other people on the raft. Seventeen people decided to stay on the ship after the boats left. The combined weight of the people on the raft left them in waist-deep water. The lifeboats were supposed to tow the raft to shore, but the Méduse
's second-in-command cut the tow ropes
and abandoned the people on the raft. The raft had no means of steering or navigation, and very little food and water. They had wine, though.
20 of the passengers on the raft died overnight due to accident, suicide, or murder.
The mercenaries and ex-convicts of the Africa Battalion mutinied
against the officers commanding the raft, and 60 people died in the fighting.
67 people were left alive on the raft, and some people had resulted to cannibalism. The stronger passengers began throwing the weak and injured overboard.
, one of the ships in the original convoy, ran across the raft on its way to search the wrecked Méduse
for gold in the cargo. The ship took the 15 survivors to St. Louis; five soon died, including Jean Charles, the man waving the flag in the painting.
's wreckage was discovered 54 days after it ran aground; three of the 17 people who had stayed on the ship were still alive.
Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard's expose Narrative of a voyage to Senegal in 1816
; New York Times review
) became a scandalous best-seller in 1817.
French artist Théodore Géricault
was inspired to paint his masterpiece by a moment described by Savigny and Corréard, when the raft's passengers first sighted the Argus
, which sailed on without seeing them. "From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief." The Argus
happened across the raft several hours later.
Corréard, Savigny, and the ship's carpenter Lavillette (another survivor) helped Géricault create a scale model of the raft and modeled for the painting. Géricault's friend and fellow painter Eugène Delacroix
also appears in the painting.
Géricault painted a series of preparatory paintings
of body parts on loan from the Paris morgue. He "was known to stash various heads, arms, and legs under his bed--or alternately store them on his roof." Head of a Guillotined Man
is based on a head Géricault kept in his apartment for two weeks. Other studies: Heads of Torture Victims
Head of a Shipwrecked Man
, Head of a Drowned Man
, Study of a Torso
, Man falling backwards
, A Father Holding the Body of His Son
, Anatomical Pieces
, feet and arm without skin
, and leg without skin
The development of the painting can be followed from the first sketch for the Shipwreck of the Medusa. Sighting of the Argus with study of bodies. Scene of Cannibalism for The Raft of the Medusa. The Sighting of the Argus
sketch, Study for The Raft of the Medusa
, and another study
are similar to the final composition.
Géricault's painting debuted at the Paris Salon of 1819 entitled Scene of a Shipwreck
and was immediately controversial
. Louis XVIII reportedly said "Monsieur, vous venez de faire un naufrage qui n'en est pas un pour vous" ("Monsieur Géricault, your shipwreck is certainly no disaster").
Théodore Géricault died in 1824 at the age of 32. His very large
painting (about 16 feet high and 18 feet wide) now hangs in the Louvre.
Analysis and commentary: Willard Spiegelman, Revolutionary Romanticism: 'The Raft of the Medusa' brought energy to French art
. Suzanne Tevlin's The Conspiracy of Silence: Gericault's Raft of The Medusa and The Abolitionist Movement
, and four
). Jake Hirsch-Allen, The Raft of the Medusa: An Analysis of Géricault’s Portrayal of Race, Politics and Class
[PDF]. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19
. John Welford, Artwork: The Raft of the Medusa, by Theodore Gericault
. Dean Ferguson, Waiting for the Argus: Theodore Gericault and The Raft of the Medusa
Charlotte-Adélaïde Dard and her family were among the people on the lifeboats. The African cottage or the story of a French family thrown on the western coast of Africa after the frigate Medusa was wrecked is her memoir (review; excerpt)
French archaeologist Jean-Yves Blot discovered the site of the wreck of the Méduse in 1980. Le Radeau de la Méduse has inspired numerous satires, perhaps most notably the cover of The Pogues' Run Sodomy and the Lash.