The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault, Part 21 of the Introduction to Art and Artists of Our Time.
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The Raft of the Medusa painting by Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault.

The Raft of the Medusa
From the painting by Jean-Louis-Andre-Theodore Gericault.


...introduction continued;

    JEAN-LOUIS-ANDRE-THEODORE GERICAULT, born at Rouen, in 1790, and dying prematurely at Paris, in 1824, has been credited with giving by his picture, "The Raft of the Medusa" an impulse, through its effect upon Eugene Delacroix, to the Romantic movement in painting. This picture was first exhibited in the Salon of 1819, five years before the famous Salon of 1824, where the works of Constable made such an impression upon the French artists. It had been painted hastily in the foyer of the Theatre Favart, just after Gericault's return from Italy, and it was natural that it should make a commotion among the artists, so long accustomed to the choice of subjects drawn from classic mythology, and the histories of the Greeks and Romans. But as in the case of the "Marcus Sextus" of Guerin, there was a reason apart from the picture itself, viewed as a work of art, which must be taken into account in reading of the interest it excited. It was looked upon, by the party in opposition, as a document proving the folly of a Government that distributed its honors and offices among incompetent people, as rewards for political services, or as mere social distinctions. The wreck of the Medusa frigate was laid at the door of the ministry, charged to the incompetence of the captain; and to this political significance must be added the violent reaction already on foot among the younger artists against David and his school. This reaction was in itself partly political. Society, under the restored Bourbons, was not likely to be friendly to the teachings of a man who had signed the death-warrant of their King, had been the friend of Marat, and had worshipped the rising sun of Napoleon, and been faithful even to his fallen fortunes.
    "The Raft of the Medusa" records a calamity that at the time caused a wide-spread feeling of disgust and horror. The story was, however, simply one of shipwreck, and the natural feeling it excited was exaggerated, as we have seen, by political hatreds.
    "The frigate, the Medusa, accompanied by three other vessels, left France, June 17, 1816, for Senegal, carrying the Governor and the principal employees of the colony. There were on board about four hundred men, sailors or passengers. On the 2nd of July the frigate stranded on the banks of Arguin, and after trying for five days to float the vessel, a raft was built, and one hundred and forty-nine persons were crowded upon it, while all the rest threw themselves into the ship's boats. Soon after, the boats parted the ropes by which they were towing the raft, and left it floating deserted in mid ocean. Then, hunger and thirst armed these men one against the other. Finally, after twelve days of agony, the Argus, one of the fleet, rescued fifteen dying men from the raft. In the picture, M. Correard, who survived to write an account of the shipwreck, stands with his right arm stretched out, pointing to the Argus, and calling to the surgeon Savigny, who supports himself against the mast, and to the sailors who are near him, that help is at hand. A sailor and a Negro, mounted upon a barrel at the end of the raft, wave their handkerchiefs in sign of distress, while their companions, among whom is the naval cadet Condin, drag themselves toward them. At the left, an old man holds his dying son on his knees. Behind him a passenger, overcome with despair, tears his hair, while many dead bodies are lying upon the raft on the side nearest the spectator." Gericault's work took the public captive by its modernness and by its realism. People were tired, for the time being, of Greeks and Romans, Psyches and Venuses, and the artists, no less than the public, rallied round the new comer. Yet Gericault, it would appear, had no new doctrine to insist upon; he did not paint these naked bodies to support any theory of the nude. He painted them as he believed they would necessarily be, and whatever his critics found ugly and disagreeable in the picture, was there not from choice, nor from theory, but because it was by nature inseparable from the subject.



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