The oil painting above is by Theodore Géricault. It is called ‘The Raft Of The Médusa’. Completed in 1818. Standing 93 inches by 282, it is now on display in the Louvre.
How The Méduse Was Abandoned
Depicted in this painting are the fifteen surviours of the Médusa, a French frigate and infamous shipwreck, perhaps only eclipsed by the Titanic (and only then thanks to James Cameron).
During July of 1816, the Médusa was sailing to the port of Saint-Louis in Senegal, when the ship begun to run into increasingly shallow waters. Despite obvious signs of danger - such as white breakers, and mud in the water - Captain De Chaumareys commanded the Médusa to continue on their route.
The Médusa ran aground 60 miles from the West African coast. Realizing his mistakes too late, De Chaumareys ordered his crew to throw any personal possessions overboard, along with anything else unnecessary for immediate survival.
Onboard the ship, there were fifteen three-ton cannons, which De Chaumareys deemed the property of the king, and thus not thier’s to throw overboard. Due to the collective 45-ton of wieght, the Médusa begun to settle into the sand bank below the shallows, fucking them all royally.
Plans were soon proposed fill the ship’s lifeboats with crew, and ferry them 60 miles to the nearest coast, which would have taken two, maybe three trips. In addition, De Chaumareys ordered for a raft to be built, so they could tow the remaining supplies onboard the Médusa to the coast. It was built 20 metres in length and 7 metres in width, using wooden panels and materials ripped and torn right of the Médusa. It was nicknamed ‘La Machine’ by the crew.
During the night before the first group of crew members set of for the coast, a gale developed, and within hours, the Médusa begun to show signs of falling apart. In a frenzied panic, De Chaumareys evacuated the frigate, ordering all those who were unable to fit in the ship’s lifeboats to board the raft. 146 men crammed onto the unstable raft, along with one woman, leaving much of it’s deck below water. Seven men decided to stay behind on the Médusa.
Towed by the longboats, the raft set off for the coast.
The Fate of the Longboats
The crew aboard the lifeboats soon realised that towing the raft behind them was impractical. With the consent of De Chaumareys, they cut the tow ropes, leaving the 147 crew members riding the raft to thier own fate.
The longboats sailed away safely, most landing on the African coast. The majority of the surviour’s begun hiking through the African jungleland, before coming upon Senegal.
The Fate of the Raft
Meanwhile on the raft, the situation begun to rapidly worsen. Their provisions included two casks of wine, and no fresh water. During the first night, one of the casks came loose and floated away.
On the second night, fights broke out. Twenty died in the brawl. Stormy weather continued to be a threat, and only the center of the raft was secure. Dozens would die fighting to get to it, or because they were washed overboard by waves.
By the fourth day, there were only 67 left alive on the raft. Cannibalism was utilized in replacement of their dwindling previsions. Chunks of flesh were hung from the raft’s mast, in an attempt to dry the meat. The body parts deemed uneatable were used to stuff the growing cracks in the raft.
On the eighth day, the men still strong begun throwing the weak and wounded overboard, until 15 of the original 147 were left. All of these men survived until their rescue, two days later, when a cargo ship accidently stumbbled upon the raft. You can see the cargo ship in the painting, though it is hard to see. Shortly after their rescue, the men were delivered to Senegal, were five of the men died in recovery.
De Chaumareys decided to rescue the gold that was still on board the Méduse and sent out a salvage crew, which discovered that the Médusa was still intact. Three of the seventeen men who had decided to stay on the Médusa were still alive 54 days later.
Géricault was captivated by accounts of the widely publicised 1816 shipwreck, and realised that a depiction of the event might be an opportunity to establish his reputation as a painter.
Having decided to proceed, he undertook extensive research before he began the painting. In early 1818, he met with survivors Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, and their emotional descriptions of their experiences largely inspired the tone of the final painting.
According to the art historian Georges-Antoine Borias, “Géricault established his studio across from Beaujon hospital. And here began a mournful descent. Behind locked doors he threw himself into his work. Nothing repulsed him. He was dreaded and avoided.”
He drew and painted numerous preparatory sketches while deciding which of several alternative moments of the disaster he would depict in the final work. The painting’s conception proved slow and difficult for Géricault, and he struggled to select a single pictorially-effective moment to best capture the inherent drama of the event.
Among the scenes he considered were the mutiny against the officers from the second day on the raft, the cannibalism that occurred after only a few days, and the rescue. Géricault ultimately settled on the moment, recounted by one of the survivors, when they first saw on the horizon the approaching rescue ship, which they attempted to signal. The ship, however, passed by.
In the words of one of the surviving crew members, “From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief.”
~ Paul Schumann