The Raft of the Medusa – Sketches & Studies

Posted June 10th, 2013

Art History, Paintings

The Raft of the Medusa
The story behind this painting is dramatic and the rather unknown sketches of dead bodies Thédore Géricault made before painting “The Raft of the Medusa” are horrifying.

After the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the coast of today’s Mauritania on July 5, 1816, at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration and cannibalism.

The Raft of the Medusa by Thédore Géricault retains elements of the traditions of history painting, in both its choice of subject matter and its dramatic presentation, it represents a break from the calm and order of the then-prevailing Neoclassical school. Géricault’s work attracted wide attention almost immediately from its first showing, and was subsequently exhibited in London. It was acquired by the Louvre soon after the artist’s early death at the age of 32. The painting’s influence can be seen in the works of Eugène Delacroix, J. M. W. Turner, Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.

Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard’s book “Narrative of a voyage to Senegal in 1816″ had come out in 1817 and became an instant bestseller nobody would have admitted to have read. The authors Corréard, Savigny, and the ship’s surviving carpenter Lavillette later helped Géricault to create a scale model of the raft when he was working on the painting (A little known fact is that Géricault’s painter friend Eugène Delacroix also appears in the painting.)

The Raft of the Medusa – Sketches & Studies
Thédore Géricault carefully prepared the composition of the painting for a long time. He collected material on the sinking and talked to survivors, whom he also sketched. Géricault also painted body parts from the Paris morgue where he was “known to stash various heads, arms, and legs under his bed–or alternately store them on his roof.”

Some of these horror studies can be found on the Internet:
- Théodore Géricault’s Preparatory Paintings for “Raft of the Medusa”
- The Head of a Guillotined Man is based on a head Géricault had kept in his apartment for 2 weeks.
- 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 seen in the sketches for the final version.
- 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.

- The Raft of the Medusa at Wikipedia
- The Raft of the Medusa at

Free Books:
- Jean Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard’s expose “Narrative of a voyage to Senegal in 1816” (eBook; New York Times review)
- The African cottage or the story of a French family thrown on the western coast of Africa after the frigate Medusa was wrecked

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.

Smart History: Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Le Radeau de la Méduse (The Raft of the Méduse)

French film by Iradj Azimi (1994).
1816. After the Battle of Waterloo, Louis XVIII is restored to the French throne. De Rochefort sets sail for Senegal on the frigate Méduse, captained by Captain Chaumareys, with the future governor of Senegal and his wife, Julien and Reine Schmaltz, on board. In no time, the atmosphere of the voyage is thick with hatred and mistrust. The tension mounts between the autocratic, incompetent Captain Chaumareys and Coudein, his lieutenant, until one fine day in June, despite Coudein’s warnings, the Méduse is inexplicably wrecked.

Cast: Jean Yanne (Chaumareys), Claude Jade (Reine Schmaltz), Philippe Laudenbach (Julien Schmaltz), Laurent Terzieff (Théodore Géricault), Daniel Mesguich (Lt. Coudein), Alain Macé (Henri Savigny), Jean Desailly (La Tullaye), Rufus (Soldier musician).