In the first of these two articles, I explained how Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) came to paint his vast canvas of The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Here I describe its reception, and the effect that it had on painting in the nineteenth century.
Géricault’s huge canvas was hung at the Salon in Paris in 1819, originally under the title of Shipwreck Scene (Scène de Naufrage). Those who saw it there would have had no difficulty in recognising its reference to the Medusa incident. The critics were, as expected, divided, some writing complaints about its frank depiction of corpses and the feelings of revulsion they evoked. Among the public, the painting was the most discussed of the year, and shot to stardom immediately.
The painting was awarded a gold medal, but surprisingly wasn’t purchased for the nation. At the end of the Salon, it was removed from its stretchers, rolled up, and put into storage. The artist himself retreated to the countryside to recover.
The following year, Géricault took it to London, where it went on display in a private gallery in Piccadilly, and was seen by about forty thousand viewers during the latter half of the year. There it was better positioned than it had been at the Salon, and more generally acclaimed by critics and public alike. In 1821, it moved on to Dublin, where it competed less successfully against the spectacle of a moving panorama on the same tragedy.
The Raft of the Medusa wasn’t purchased by the Louvre until after Géricault’s early death in 1824. A smaller copy was made in the late 1820s and exhibited to crowds in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC.
Critics also raised concerns about the accuracy of Géricault’s depiction of the raft and its occupants.
The published drawing of the plan of the raft reveals how the painting shows only about a quarter of the total area of the raft as it actually was: the lowest rectangular section drawn in Savigny and Corréard’s book.
Another problem was the physical state of the bodies, alive and dead, which hardly reflects thirteen days of almost complete starvation and profound dehydration. Instead, Géricault opted for a well-muscled appearance more typical of life classes or classical sculpture. He may have done that in order to increase the heroic impression, rather than making the survivors look weak and pathetic.
Géricault’s subsequent career was tragically non-descript. He retreated to painting what he liked best – horses, as in this view of The Epsom Derby from 1821. He also developed an interest in Lord Byron’s poem Mazeppa, which had coincidentally been published in 1819. Much of this poem details the suffering and endurance of a future leader of the Ukraine during a long journey tied naked on the back of a horse, as punishment for his affair with a Polish Countess.
Among the first artists to paint Mazeppa was the ailing Théodore Géricault, here in his first study from about 1820. The wild horse carrying Byron’s long-suffering hero has just swum across a river at night, and is now climbing up the bank. The viewer is almost guaranteed to wince in sympathy with the Cossack’s cold and pain.
In what must have been one of his last paintings, Géricault revisited Mazeppa in 1823, the year before his death, which occurred partly as the result of the cumulative effects of injuries from his horseriding, and from tuberculosis. In his final months, he was working fitfully on early studies for large works showing the slave trade, and the Spanish Inquisition.
In depicting ordinary people struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances, Géricault opened the way for successors including Eugène Delacroix (who had modelled for the painting) and, most of all, Gustave Courbet.
Courbet’s monumental A Burial at Ornans (1849-50) shows in remarkably unemotional and objective terms the funeral of the artist’s great uncle in the small provincial town of Ornans. The event had taken place in September 1848, but the painting gives the impression that it is a faithful and contemporary record.
Courbet actually painted the work entirely in the studio, using those who were present as models. It shows a moment which could only have existed in the artist’s memory: like the Raft of the Medusa, it doesn’t necessarily represent an image which ever existed in reality. But it has been carefully researched, imagined, composed, and painted to give the impression of accuracy and objectivity, rather than being another Romantic fantasy.
That in turn brought social realism, as in many paintings of both rural and urban deprivation during the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
A fine example is Léon Lhermitte’s masterpiece The Harvesters’ Pay from 1882, which looks objectively at the economic and social aspects of the harvest. Four of the harvesters, bearing their heavy-duty scythes, await payment by the farmer’s factor, who holds a bag of coins for the purpose.
In the centre of the painting, one of the workers is counting out his pay in front of his wife, who is feeding a young infant at her breast. To their left, another worker just sits and stares blankly into the distance, dead-beat tired and wondering whether his pittance was worth all that effort. Once again, these are ordinary people apparently seen in a faithful image of reality.
That became one of the cornerstones of Naturalism, which moved on to show apparently real images of science, technology and, above all, medicine.
In André Brouillet’s A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière Hospital (1887), the eminent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is demonstrating how he could hypnotise Marie “Blanche” Wittman, the ‘Queen of Hysterics’, into suffering a hysterical collapse. Charcot and Wittman were a renowned partnership in this ‘act’, who performed in front of Sigmund Freud when he visited the hospital.
Although Naturalism fell from grace by the start of the twentieth century, Géricault’s ghost continues to haunt images such as Tom Lea’s startling 2000 Yard Stare, showing the human effects of the Second World War in the Pacific.
Few paintings still reverberate through art history in the way that The Raft of the Medusa does, two centuries after they were first exhibited.
Shipwrecked art history: Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer N (2010) Théodore Géricault, Phaidon Press. ISBN 978 0 7148 4400 8.
Eitner L (1972) Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Phaidon Press.