A painting completely upset the 1819 Paris Salon. It was depicting an actual shipwreck, rather than heroes in history or myths. “The Raft of the Medusa” features the graphic image of the tragedy on the Medusa. What happened on the ship?
The French naval frigate Medusa deployed to colonize Senegal in Africa hit rocks and was wrecked on July 2, 1816. A French naval officer named Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys was the captain of the ship carrying 400 people. Despite his inexperience and incompetence, he had been appointed as the captain due to his closeness to the king. Even more, he allowed the boarding of extra people beyond the capacity of the ship in exchange for money.
Passengers hurriedly got on smaller boats before the ship sank. The captain escaped first. The remaining 149 people who couldn’t get on the boats had to build a raft. The raft was without supplies and also met with a storm, causing it to become a living hell. Starvation, dehydration, disease, disorder, madness, murder, suicide, and even cannibalism followed on the raft. There were only 15 survivors left after 13 days of drifting.
Twenty-seven-year-old painter Théodore Géricault wanted to make a permanent record of what happened on the Medusa in a painting. He recreated the day when the survivors were rescued. As a rescue ship came in sight, people on the front part of the raft are waving towels full of hope. However, those on the back are in despair. The old man with the body of his son on his laps seems completely resigned. To complete the painting, Géricault interviewed the survivors, hired a carpenter to create a model raft, and visited a morgue to examine the dead bodies. The Raft of the Medusa was finished after such careful preparation was beyond shocking.
With the revelation of the painting, both anger and praises poured in. The king and government officials who were trying to conceal the incident were perplexed. The over-200-year-old painting still resonates with us as it gives a lesson that a country led by corrupt leaders will suffer a similar catastrophe as the Medusa.