‘All hands on deck, we’ve run afloat!’ I heard the captain cry
‘Explore the ship, replace the cook: let no one leave alive!’
Across the straits, around the Horn: how far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course, and no one left alive
We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye
Upon the seventh seasick day we made our port of call
A sand so white, and sea so blue, no mortal place at all
We fired the gun, and burnt the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log: your witness my own hand ( A Salty Dog. Keith Reid )
The Raft of the Medusa remains the most enduring image ever painted by Theodore Gericault, and rightfully so. Born September 26, 1791, Gericault capitalized on a special moment in French civilization when the sense of outrage was at its peak and people were ready to rally to a cause. Fresh from travels in Florence and Rome in 1817 and 1818, Gericault channeled his mania for Michelangelo into The Raft of the Medusa’s unique combination of Neoclassicism and nascent Romanticism. Gericault found a way of depicting human life and death in a painting that contains both natural tempestuousness and compositional calm. He has put pictorial symmetry at the service of ferocity.
The picture represents a specific moment. The survivors have just sighted the Argus, the boat that will eventually rescue them but is now a speck on the horizon, actually passing them by. At the top, two men, one an African crew member, are waving banners, shirts or kerchiefs. The figures express a range of emotions, from eagerness and exultation to incredulity, despair, hysteria, resignation and apathy.
Géricault’s preliminary sketches document the growth of his ambitions for the painting. The most shocking figure, absent from the earlier sketch, is a dead person on the lower right. Its gender is uncertain: Géricault used a male friend as his model, but the chest looks womanly. The head is outside the frame. We see primarily the person’s midsection, with pubic hair exposed. Whoever this is, or was, has one leg still wrapped around a beam of the raft. Clearly the person will soon slip into the sea.
Another apparently dead youth has the beauty of a Greek sculpture. The most arresting figure, the only one staring straight out at the viewer, is an older, well-muscled man who supports the youth, perhaps his dead son. He looks like someone out of Michelangelo. His gaze suggests his transcendence of both hope and despair.
The painting’s center has what seem to be cracklings or bubbles, which distort both the figures and their color. The painter’s use of bitumen on his palette came at a cost: This particular black appeared lustrous at first, but over time it created a wrinkling that cannot, according to the experts, be corrected. If not as great a colorist as Delacroix, Géricault made an appropriate palette of deathliness. The picture’s primary hues are sickly, pallid gray and yellow flesh tones, but there is a range of hues from alabaster to blaThe coloring seems to work against the classic muscularity of the figures’ bodies.
…Once the subject had been decided , Gericault worked swiftly and with feverish concentration. He ate his meals at the studio , slept in an adjoining room, and even shaved off his hair to avoid the temptation of going out at night. Locking himself in, he began working as soon as the sun was up and stopped only when there was no longer light enough to paint by. No distractions were permitted; his assistant, Jamar, had to wear slippers in the studio.
The ship staggered under a thunderous shock
That shook us asunder, as if she had struck and crashed on a rock;
For the huge sea smote every soul from the decks of The Falcon but one;
All of them, all but the man that was lash’d to the helm had gone.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson, from “The Wreck”.
The final version of ”The Raft of the Medusa” is an ingenious melange of fact and fiction. Some of the faces and figures have been identified by Gericault scholars. Correard is the man whose arm points toward the distant ship, Savigny the one at the foot of the mast, the ship’s carpenter one of those around Correard. The Black wearing the cloth was drawn from a Paris model; Delacroix posed for the exhausted figure in the foreground, his head resting on the raft; and Jamar contributed an upturned face at the center. Despite the authentic touches, the composition is completely contrived; total invention. To have shown the raft as it actually was would have given the whole thing far too horizontal a thrust; instead Gericault chose to build up a pyramidal structure, crowned by the brown figure against the horizontal sky.
It is on such points of order that the painter has to improve on historical reality. As Flaubert wrote about one of his own novels, every work of art can fail by being too true to life. ”Every work of art must have a point, a climax, must form a pyramid, or else light must fall on some point of the sphere. But in life nothing like this exists. However, art is not nature. ”
How arbitrary this art could be was seen just before ”The Raft” was to be shown at the Salon, when Gericault gave it a trial showing in the foyer of the Theatre Italien.Only then, seeing it under different light, did he notice a great ”empty space” at the bottom of his picture. Undaunted, he brought his paints and brushes to the theatre, called for a friend to be a model, and added the dangling white draped cadaver that completes, and in some ways, dominates the composition.
”The Raft of the Medusa” did not win that year’s prize for the best painting at the Salon, which went to a biblical subject. Nor, unsurprisingly, was the picture on the long list of those bought by the government for its permanent collections. Some of the critics liked his work, but tended to judge it according to the political prejudices of the newspapers. It was felt to be too large,or too ghastly; one of the reviewers said that he had slandered the Ministry of Marine. ”But the wretches who write such stuff”, Gericault declared, ”have surely never starved for fourteen days, or else they would realize that neither poetry nor painting is able to convey with sufficient horror all the sufferings which the people of the raft had to undergo”.
”According to the historian Michelet, writing in 1848, the ‘Raft’ symbolised, ‘the shipwreck of France’ and the dashed hopes of ’89, first betrayed by the Empire, and then by the Bourbons. By metaphorically abandoning the raft and sliding off its deck, Géricault embraced an early death himself, dying (so Michelet believed) because his faith in France had died. ( Albert ) Alhadeff joins a growing band of modern day scholars who reject Michelet’s pessimism of 1848 and, instead, see Géricault’s ‘Raft’ as an image of hope for the future. To make his case Alhadeff enlists the support of, among others, the fervent abolitionist Abbé Grégoire, who urged France to change her policy towards the Africans. There can be little doubt that Géricault would have shared such humanitarian sentiments. Whether or not they were sufficient to motivate him to give the most prominent place to a black man on the ‘Raft’ must still be a matter for speculation, as Alhadeff himself admits. There is, however, sufficiently impressive evidence gathered here to suggest that this may well have been the case. Moreover, the contextual presentation of the documentation and visual evidence suggests new approaches to Géricault, and fresh avenues for the exploration of Romanticism … ” ( Robin Spencer )
Discouraged and depressed, Gericault accepted an invitation to show the picture in London, where it scored a major success in a gallery on Picadilly, earnig him nearly twenty thousand francs at the box office. When he returned to France, he was full of plans for other monumental variations on the ”Prinzip Hoffnung” : the Greek War of Independence, the African Slave Trade, and the Liberation of the Prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition. But he was never to exhibit another picture. Already in precarious health, he was injured in a fall from a horse and developed a tubercular abscess of the spine. For the last half year of his life he was unable to leave his bed.
When he died in 1824, leaving his worldly goods to his son-cousin, his executors had great difficulty in persuading the Ministry of Fine Arts to buy his chef-d’oeuvre for six thousand francs. ”As it was,” said Alexandre Dumas,” the Government only bought it with the intention of cutting out five or six heads, which were to be used as studies for the art pupils.” The authorities were dissuaded in time, and ”The Raft” floats on , majestically intact in one of the great galleries of the Louvre; it reminds painters that their rightful place is with the abandoned, the expendable, and the downtrodden.
”There were fifteen left on the raft when the Argus finally came to the rescue, thirteen days after they had first been set adrift a mere four miles from shore. Of course, the Argus wasn’t actually looking for the castaways. Finding them was a fortuitous accident. Their orders were to look for survivors from the lifeboats who may have been put ashore. They had another task too: they were supposed to retrieve a store of gold left behind in the hull of the Medusa. What the crew of the Argus saw when they finally pulled up next to the raft must have been rather a shock. Fifteen men, many close to death, the skin of their legs and feet awash with open sores, their faces emaciated and blistered by the sun. Just ten per cent of the original number were left. Corpses littered the raft, some nastily decomposed, bearing signs of having been tampered with by more than sea birds.
Five of the rescued men died within the next few weeks, others were hospitalized for months. De Chaumereys was court-martialed, but, incredibly, was found not guilty of desertion — despite damning evidence to the contrary. In truth, those wily French were afraid the British would ridicule them for their foolishness. And no doubt they were right. But what of the painting? It in itself was a survivor. Ge’ricault died two years after its completion, having never recovered from the monumental effort it took to complete the work. The painting then became a kind of traveling show, horrifying the curious all over Europe. Eventually, it was offered for sale. There were two very interested parties. One was a wealthy English chap, the other a consortium of French nobility, who planned to chop the canvas into smaller, more easily sold pieces to auction one by one. The painting was seen as an anti-monarchist work, depicting so vividly the handiwork of one of his minions. However, ironically, it was Louis XVIII who stepped in and rescued the work from being shipped overseas or hacked to pieces. He donated the painting to the Louvre, in Paris, where it remains.
But here’s the bit we like the most: the Medusa is still out there. De Chaumereys thought that there was still gold in her hull, and sent out a rescue party to get it. After three journeys, they found her. They searched the sinking frigate high and low, to no avail. What they did find however, were the emaciated bodies of three survivors. Barely alive, they’d lasted 54 days. Of course, they were all completely mad. Starvation and isolation will do that. But they recovered. The Medusa didn’t — she’s still stuck on the Arguin bank, and isn’t going anywhere.”
Down on the vale of Death, with dismal cries,
The fated victims shuddering roll their eyes
In wild despair; while yet another stroke
With deep convulsion, rends the solid oak:
Till like the mine, in whose infernal cell
The lurking demons of destruction dwell,
At length asunder torn, her frame divides;
And crashing spreads in ruin o’er the tides.
—From William Falconer’s “The Shipwreck“
Gericault, in ”The Raft” fixed on the moment that describes the horror, and at the same time the promise of salvation; the psychological instant where hope and despair are in equilibrium. It is almost as though he wanted to illustrate not the iron law of Darwin, but ”Daz Prinzip Hoffnung”, the ”Hope principle”, which the philosopher Ernst Bloch identified as one of the great themes that permeated nineteenth-century social thought.
”Just as Hegel’s philosophy articulated the odyssey of spirit through history and culture, so too does Bloch’s philosophy chart the vicissitudes of hope. For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by “dreams of a better life,” and by utopian longings for fulfillment. The “something better” for which people yearn is precisely the subject-matter of Bloch’s massive The Principle of Hope, which provides a systematic examination of the ways that daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature, theater, and all forms of art, political and social utopias, philosophy, and religion — often dismissed tout court as ideology by some Marxist ideological critique — contain emancipatory moments which project visions of a better life that put in question the organization and structure of life under capitalism (or state socialism).
Bloch urges us to grasp the three dimensions of human temporality: he offers us a dialectical analysis of the past which illuminates the present and can direct us to a better future. The past — what has been — contains both the sufferings, tragedies and failures of humanity — what to avoid and to redeem — and its unrealized hopes and potentials — which could have been and can yet be. For Bloch, history is a repository of possibilities that are living options for future action, therefore what could have been can still be. The present moment is thus constituted in part by latency and tendency: the unrealized potentialities that are latent in the present, and the signs and foreshadowings that indicate the tendency of the direction and movement of the present into the future. This three-dimensional temporality must be grasped and activated by an anticipatory consciousness that at once perceives the unrealized emancipatory potential in the past, the latencies and tendencies of the present, and the realizable hopes of the future. Above all, Bloch develops a philosophy of hope and the future, a dreaming forward, a projection of a vision of a future kingdom of freedom. It is his conviction that only when we project our future in the light of what is, what has been, and what could be can we engage in the creative practice that will produce a world in which we are at home and realize humanities deepest dreams.” ( Douglas Kellner )
From George P. Landow: ”Géricault, however, did not rely solely upon a close vantage-point to encourage the spectator’s empathy with the endangered victims of sea disaster. In an intermediate version of the picture, which ( Lorenz ) Eitner calls Hailing an Approaching Rowing-boat, he first made the decisive changes of employing a close vantage-point and also opposing the position of the nearby victims to the distant one of their rescuers. As Eitner has shown, ‘The effect of the scene now hinges on the juxtaposition of near and far elements’ . The closeness of the raft leads the spectator to identify with those on board, and his eye is led by their actions to the small boat approaching. Géricault intensified this crucial juxtaposition in the final version, in which the men on the raft experience, not hope, but disappointment:
His final enlargement of the figures was intended not only to give them the impressiveness – or ‘sublimity’, to use Delacroix’s word which a superhuman scale can confer, it was also to serve an expressive function essential to the meaning of the picture. Without representing the vastness of the ocean directly, Géricault sought to dramatize the isolation of the men on the Raft and the strain of their effort, by withdrawing beyond hope the rescue, toward which they defiantly strive. He activated the distance, making it appear as a plunging recession, rather than a horizontal expanse, and intensified the illusion or space by means of radical foreshortenings. The enormous foreground figures push the horizon back; the few inches of canvas which separate the signaling men from the speck which signifies the Argus demand to be read as miles. It was clearly Géricault’s purpose to draw the beholder into a close, empathetic participation with the action of his picture, and to make him feel the drama of the scene with his muscles as much as with his eyes.”