Listening to Art, by William Denton.
Volume six, number nine: The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault.
Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.
The Raft of the Medusa is a staggeringly huge painting, about seven meters wide by five meters high. It was done by French painter Théodore Géricault in 1818 and 1819.
The subject matter was a very recent event. In 1816 the French naval frigate Medusa had sailed for Senegal, recently restored to France as a colony. It carried the new governor, Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, and over two hundred others, including administrators, engineers, troops and workers. They were going to take possession of Senegal and rule it. On 2 July 1816 the ship ran aground off Mauritania.
The events are described by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer in her biography Théodore Géricault (p. 123):
When it became evident that the Medusa was doomed, Schmaltz and the higher-ranking officers boarded the six available lifeboats. The rest of the passengers, some 150 men (and one woman), prospective colonists, lower-ranking military men and sailors representing a medley of French, Italians, Spaniards and blacks from the colonies, were packed on a makeshift raft built from the ship’s masts and measuring only 20 × 7 metres (65⅝ × 23 ft). Boats and raft were connected with ropes, so that the raft could be towed to shore. But the officers in the boats, finding that the weight of the raft impeded their course, severed the ropes with an axe. The raft floated adrift at the mercy of the wind and waves for the next thirteen days. Its passengers, immersed up to the waist in water and exposed to tropical heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night, experienced every kind of abject horror, mutiny, murder, insanity, suicide and violent death. Driven by extreme hunger and thirst, they resorted to cannibalism and to drinking their own urine. On the thirteenth day, the raft was sighted by the Argus, a British vessel that had been sent out to find them. Only fifteen men, in horrendous physical condition, were still alive. Of these, five died before the rescuing ship arrived in Saint-Louis, the port town of Senegal.
Géricault died, aged 32, in 1824. Eugène Delacroix, whose works we heard in volume five numbers seven, eight, nine and ten, knew him, and in fact posed for one of the men on the raft: he is at the bottom centre of the painting, his hand resting over a wooden beam. In his Journals on 30 December 1823 Delacroix mentions visiting Géricault on his deathbed. I quote from the Phaidon Press edition, edited by Hubert Wellington and translated by Lucy Norton.
A few days ago I spent the evening with Géricault. How sad it all is! He is dying; his emaciation is dreadful to see—thighs no thicker than my arms and a head like that of an ancient, dying man. I want him to live with all my heart but I dare not hope any longer. It is a frightful change! I remember coming home full of enthusiasm for his work and especially for the Study for the Head of a Rifleman. I must remember that, it is outstanding. What beautiful studies! Such firmness! Such mastery! To die in the midst of all this, which he has created in the full vigour and fire of his youth. And now he cannot even turn in his bed without assistance!
On 20 October 1853 he describes a painting by Rubens and compares it to The Raft of the Medusa. He writes:
There is something sublime in all these works which is partly due to the great size of the figures. The same pictures on a smaller scale would, I am sure, have had an entirely different effect. In both Rubens’s picture and in Géricault’s, there is an indescribable flavour of the style of Michelangelo which adds still further to the impression produced by the size of the figures, and gives them an awe-inspiring quality.
This is a painting, oil on canvas, 716 cm wide by 491 cm high.
Now let’s listen to The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, recorded at the Louvre, in Paris, on 18 July 2019.
That was The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.
For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.
Listening to Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All web sites accessed as of date of publication.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. Théodore Géricault. London: Phaidon Press, 2010.
Delacroix, Eugène. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix. 3rd ed. Edited by Hubert Wellington. Translated by Lucy Norton. London: Phaidon Press, 2001.
Musée du Louvre. “Le Radeau de la Méduse.” Site officiel du musée du Louvre. http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=22541&langue=fr.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Théodore Géricault,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Théodore_Géricault.
⸻, s.v. “The Raft of the Medusa,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Raft_of_the_Medusa.