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Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Medusa)
August 31, 2012 7:49 AM   Subscribe

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 left Rochefort, 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.)

June 27: the convoy reached Madeira (Google map showing Rochefort, Madeira, and St. Louis.)

July 1: Méduse crossed the Equator and celebrated with a line-crossing ceremony.

July 2: 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.

July 4: 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.

July 5: 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.

July 6: 20 of the passengers on the raft died overnight due to accident, suicide, or murder.

July 7: The mercenaries and ex-convicts of the Africa Battalion mutinied against the officers commanding the raft, and 60 people died in the fighting.

July 9: 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.

July 17: the Argus, 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.

The Méduse'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 (eBook; 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 (parts two, three, 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.
posted by kirkaracha (34 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite

 
I mean, I guess you have no way of knowing how long you're going to be stranded for but 12 days, guys really? I have friends who've fasted longer than that.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:02 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


4 days. That's when they resorted to cannibalism. However, the "mercenaries and ex-convicts" may have been none too overfed already, plus I imagine all the murdering and whatnot can work up an appetite.
posted by DU at 8:05 AM on August 31, 2012


Thanks for all extensive details on the event and painting!

The stronger passengers began throwing the weak and injured overboard.
Hmm...was Paul Ryan there?
posted by incandissonance at 8:09 AM on August 31, 2012 [11 favorites]


Knowing the backstory makes the painting so much more haunting, the moment when they're overjoyed to be found, but realize what they have done...

Fun fact, when I was at the Louvre there was a tiny old woman copying the painting, as you are allowed to do so long as you don't copy it at the Orginal size, and she had painted little cloth ribbons over the crotches cause cannibalism and madness is fine but dicks are just beyond the pale.
posted by The Whelk at 8:10 AM on August 31, 2012 [14 favorites]


When I was in the Louvre as a teen, I knew about this enormous, emotionally powerful painting and made sure to see it. It did not disappoint.

That said, I never noticed the figurehead of the distant ship, and no one ever pointed it out to me. Yikes.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:12 AM on August 31, 2012


The Raft of the Medusa was also the basis for the album cover of The Pogue's Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash and inspired the song "The Wake of the Medusa" off their Hell's Ditch album.
posted by hanoixan at 8:13 AM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


(ugh, sorry, didn't see italicized mentioning of that at the bottom of the post -- good work, kirkaracha!)
posted by hanoixan at 8:14 AM on August 31, 2012


Am I looking at a map wrong and don't see the equator between France and Senegal?
posted by Jazz Hands at 8:15 AM on August 31, 2012


The stronger passengers began throwing the weak and injured overboard.

Hmm...was Paul Ryan there?
He would have been one of the Authority Dudes in the lifeboats who promised to tow the raft to shore but cut it loose instead.


And later would have felt a tinge of regret as he realized he'd also left the wine behind.
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


They all look pretty ripped for guys who've been lost at sea for 13 days.
posted by "But who are the Chefs?" at 8:18 AM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Awesome post, BTW.
posted by notyou at 8:19 AM on August 31, 2012


There's just something so rogue and ridiculous about that backstory.

I believe it, I get it, but it I'm inclined to suggest they went there rather quickly.
posted by roboton666 at 8:20 AM on August 31, 2012


Also notably the subject of a chapter of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (you probably mentioned it but I can't see it).
posted by Segundus at 8:25 AM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Speaking of parodies, one of my favorite panels from the Asterix books is this one. "We've been framed, by Gericault."
posted by yoink at 8:55 AM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I looking at a map wrong and don't see the equator between France and Senegal?

No, the ceremony was performed when they crossed the Tropic:

"On the 1st of July we descried Cape Bayados, situated in latitude 26° 12'
30", and in longitude 16° 47'. We then saw the skirts of the immense desert
of Zaara, and we thought we perceived the mouth of the river St. John [A4],
which is very little known. We passed the tropic at ten o'clock in the
morning; the usual ceremony was there performed with a certain pomp; the
jokes of the sailors amused us for some moments; we were far from thinking
of the cruel event which was soon to deprive of their lives a third of the
persons who were on board the frigate. This custom of tropical baptism is
strange enough; the chief object of it, is, to procure the sailors some
money."
posted by oneirodynia at 9:07 AM on August 31, 2012


My favorite story of this sort is Batavia's Graveyard. The first European's to land on Australia (though a small island). The crew mutinied after a shipwreck, and started killing the rest one by one.
posted by stbalbach at 9:12 AM on August 31, 2012


Great post.
posted by Gelatin at 9:59 AM on August 31, 2012


Pardon if this is mentioned before, but check out "The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century" by Jonathan Miles, for a nonfiction narrative of the event.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:24 AM on August 31, 2012


DU: 4 days. That's when they resorted to cannibalism.
Edmund: Is Captain Rum joining us for this bring-a-sample party, or is he going to sit this one out?

Percy: Oh no, he's been swigging his for ages. He says he likes it. Actually, come to think of it, he started before the water ran out.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:34 AM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's also analysis of the painting by Julian Barnes in his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 11:03 AM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, come to think of it, he started before the water ran out.

My antivirus software says that link contains malware. Caveat clicker.
posted by axiom at 11:37 AM on August 31, 2012


Wikipedia says 146 men and 1 woman on that raft.

I can't even imagine what happened to that one woman. *shudders*
posted by maryr at 11:47 AM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was going to joke about the idea of a Broadway musical based on this ("Medusa!") but apparently there was an off-Broadway play which uses the disaster as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis.
posted by larrybob at 1:39 PM on August 31, 2012


axiom: Actually, come to think of it, he started before the water ran out.

My antivirus software says that link contains malware. Caveat clicker.
Hmm, mine didn't, but - for the record, it does look sketchiesque. It's a link to the Black Adder episode I was quoting. No need to click it at all.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:43 PM on August 31, 2012


Also the basis for H.W. Henze's 1968 "Oratorio volgare e militare" (libretto by my granddad) - the première of which caused an actual riot.
posted by progosk at 4:29 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


My god what a story. I'd rather watch that movie than some of the other shipwrecks I've seen lately.
posted by pashdown at 4:33 PM on August 31, 2012


Wow. This is a great post. Seeing this painting as a kid made me realise very strongly how scary and hopeless things can be. It still makes me go 'wow' today.
posted by undue influence at 5:22 PM on August 31, 2012


Peter Weiss' great novel, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume II, has a large section on the Medusa. It'll be out in English (Duke University Press) probably around this time next year (self-promotion).
posted by outlandishmarxist at 6:19 PM on August 31, 2012


I always wonder if there's a relation between Gericault's Medusa and Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People. Compositionally, they're almost inverses of one another.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 6:26 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great post, my vote for post of the month (the subgenius post was just much too much). I know not of visual arts or this painting, but as a big fan of historical drama and the Pogues, i loved the reading through the links and having my mind blown by the Rum, Sodomy, etc. connection.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:15 PM on August 31, 2012


This also gets my one and only favorite for a post, as my vote for post of the month.

I wonder what happened to the gold on the Medusa.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:32 PM on August 31, 2012


They all look pretty ripped for guys who've been lost at sea for 13 days.

Le Radeau de la Méduse is an example of Romanticism:
The painting is a Romantic painting, a movement that closely followed the Neoclassical movement in nineteenth century France. The style relies on the drama and fluidity of the Baroque movement and utilizes loose brushstrokes, a strong palette, the sharp contrast of light and dark, and dramatic poses. The subject matter for Romantic paintings often came from literature but also included social criticism.

Géricault was strongly influenced by Michelangelo, as were nearly all Neoclassical and Romantic painters, and therefore painted idealized, muscular bodies, which in this case would’ve been a strong contradiction to how the men really looked. Note there are twenty figures in the composition rather than the accurate number of fifteen.
I always wonder if there's a relation between Gericault's Medusa and Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People. Compositionally, they're almost inverses of one another.

Could be:
Like Géricault, Delacroix based his composition on a strong pyramid, but instead of receding into the background, the figures march out of the picture, into our space. This is a visual translation of the idea of progress, of victory. It is almost as if Raft of the Medusa had been turned around: a bare-breasted female (the allegorical representation of liberty) replaces the barebacked black man at the center of Géricault's earlier picture. Instead of looking at the action from the outside, we seem to be in the midst of the battle, with smoke swirling around us and bodies under our feet. In both pictures, triumph is juxtaposed directly with suffering and death.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:52 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


At least the survivors had each other, however unethical they were [previously]. When all you have left is sun, sea, waterspout, sharks, and scraps of sugarcane, you know you're in deep blue trouble — Winslow Homer's painting, The Gulf Stream (1899).

Never deprive someone (especially your audience) of hope, though. Wait until he turns around and sees that distant clipper ship off the starboard bow.
posted by cenoxo at 1:32 PM on September 1, 2012


In 2009 Canadian artist Adad Hannah re-enacted the painting using a cast of high school students.
posted by variella at 7:37 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


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