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Moments in ArtThe Raft of the Medusa
by Lawrence Jeppson
One of the most gruesome shipwrecks of the nineteenth century became the grisly gruel for what became, arguably, the single most important painting of that century.
The catastrophe is recounted in Alexander McKee’s gripping 1975 best seller Death Raft.
As part of the peace settlement after Napoleon was thrashed at Waterloo, England agreed to return France’s West African colony of Senegal. The return could not be made until the English governor and his entourage could be replaced officially by a new French governor and his crowd. To this end, the French assembled a small fleet of four aging naval vessels: the frigate Medusa, the corvette Echo, the clumsy transport Loire, and the little brig Argus.
The little fleet would carry 365 passengers, 240 of them on the Medusa. Soldiers under an elderly lieutenant-colonel made up the bulk of the passengers but there were also “engineers, accountants, hospital staff, explorers, bakers, school masters, and a solitary gardener.”
The Medusa carried Colonel Julien-Désiré Schmaltz, the designated commander-in-chief and governor of Senegal, his wife, and all the regal baggage and provisions for a man of his standing. As governor, he would need to be impressive. At least he thought so.
Schmaltz, of German and Irish origin, had gone to the post-Revolution French Military Academy but left the military and went into the shipping business. In 1811 he was called up to serve in the Navy. His service was short lived, as he was taken prisoner by the British. After keeping him for two years, the British decided he was unfit for service and let him return to France. He disappeared from view until the Bourbons replaced Napoleon after the emperor’s first exile. Schmaltz suddenly emerged from obscurity, with all his honors benevolently restored–far beyond what he deserved.
“He was a colonel who was no real colonel. . . His nature was devious, and complex, but his self-confidence – amounting to tactlessnes – was absolute . . . He was a very strong-willed, dominant personality . . . and difficult for [the captain] to argue with, for part of what he said, even if amounting to 20 percent, was undoubtedly true.”
That captain was Hughes Duroy de Chaumareys. From his Medusa flagship, he was captain of the small flotilla. During the Revolution he had escaped to Britain to join the forces fighting for the French monarchy. He returned to France in 1804, applied for a customs post, and waited out the years, although he was watched by Napoleon’s agents. Within days after Louis XVIII became king, de Chaumareys obtained an audience with the king’s brother and petitioned for return to Naval service. He was 52 and had not been to sea for 25 years, then only as a lieutenant. He had never commanded a vessel.
At that time 200 years ago, many mariners’ charts were a mixture of guesswork, rumor, and questionable scientific measurement. The Atlantic off the west coast of Africa was notoriously uncharted. It was known that this part of the ocean was cursed by the Arguin Bank, a vast area of shallow seas and a changing sea bottom of sands, supposedly deposited over thousands of years by winds from the Sahara.
Sea winds change seasonally, and there was a best time to sail to Senegal. The little fleet started later than it should, and like the Donner Party in Western American history and two of the Mormon handcart companies, this delay was unfortunate.
To avoid the Arguin, de Chaumareys was ordered to take an oblique course far out into the Atlantic and, after going far enough south to avoid the treacherous seas, turn back towards Senegal, in effect traveling two sides of a large triangle. He was also told to keep his flotilla of four ships together, meaning they could go only as fast as the slowest ship.
This order was soon breached. Schmaltz was anxious to get to Senegal, and he prevailed upon the captain of the Medusa to break off from the others and head for Senegal as fast as possible, leaving behind the most experienced naval officer (who should have commanded the fleet) as captain of the corvette Echo. The experienced navy personnel on the Argus and the other ships were already muttering because Schmaltz was exerting too much influence and because the captain was only a customs officer. De Chaumareys’s first officer was experienced, and largely ignored, because there was another person on board who soon had the captain’s ear.
This crony was a charismatic man named Richefort, who had never served in the navy and had no official status. He was a member of the Philanthropic Society of Cape Verde and was to be one of the team exploring Senegal; it’s real intent was to colonize the interior. Richefort was fresh from an English prison, where he had spent the last ten years. He may have intended to become the harbor master, for a port that dealt almost exclusively in slaves.
Richefort claimed he had intimate knowledge of the African coast and knew how to avoid the Arguin Banks. Soon the captain was relying on him and ignoring his own officers. Richefort persuaded de Chaumareys to cut back from the original heading sooner than planned and take a course closer to the coastline, something that also placated Schmaltz’s nagging for quicker passage.
It was an incompetent, disastrous blunder!
As they neared what might be dangerous waters, regular precautionary depth soundings using lead weights attached to measuring lines were necessary. The last measurement showed a depth of only 32 feet. The captain should have been overseeing these measurements, but he was in his cabin on mid-afternoon of July 2, 1816 when the Medusa, alone on the sea, hit a sandbar, from which it would never escape.
The Medusa, with 450 people on board, was stranded somewhere far off the Sahara coast.
She carried six smaller craft. While crewmen manned the frigate’s pumps, others attempted to use the smaller boats to drag her back off the sandbar. Precious cargo, including food and water casks, was thrown overboard in an attempt to lighten the vessel, but this scarcely helped. There were heavy cannon on board, but the captain did not think to jettison them.
The shipwrecked were battered by winds and sea and a very hot tropical sun.
De Chaumareys decided to abandon ship.
Because not everyone could be accommodated by the six small boats, the decision was made to construct a large raft from masts and planks. It was 60 feet long and 20 feet wide but had no keel and no mast. Four of the smaller boats, propelled by sail and oars, would be roped together in a line. Another line linked the last boat to the raft. Together, the boats would drag the raft. This scheme was soon to be breached!
Abandonment was supposed to be orderly; there was the threat that anyone stampeding for the rescue craft would be shot. Personal possessions were forbidden. The four dragging boats, including those of the captain and the governor, were severely underloaded, in contrast to a 30-foot longboat carrying 88 people. Hiding in the ship were 17 men who refused to board the raft; only three of them would be found alive by another ship 52 days later.
The makeshift raft had to carry all those that remained, 150 souls!
The raft was so crowded that it hovered below the ocean surface, and the 150 people were up to their waists in water and would remain so until so many of them died that the raft would ride the surface. The group included 120 soldiers and their officers and ten sailors.
Ironically, although there was no shore in sight, if the boats had been used to ferry people to the Sahara coast, there would have been no loss of life.
The raft’s cargo consisted of six wine casks and two water barrels. There was no food, no tools, no compass, and no charts.
The captain had left the Medusa while there were still men on board. This violation of navy oath exposed him later to the death penalty. A worse crime, for which he could not be punished because he was a civilian, was Schmaltz’s order to cast off the rope towing the raft.
The raft could do nothing except ride the currents, storms, sea, and excruciating sun. A makeshift sail was improvised. Men tried unsuccessfully to catch fish through the gaps in the raft. Sharks circled. With the wine and water gone, men went crazy from thirst. Many suffered, and died, from hunger, thirst, and hallucinations. Many, exhausted, simply let themselves go into the sea. A civil war developed on the raft, man against man, group against group. Some officers huddled near the center of the raft so they could protect themselves on all sides from men who wanted to kill them and throw them into the sea.
The hunger became so bad they began to carve up and eat raw the bodies of the dead. The one woman of the 150 died. So did others, by the score.
The small boats made it to land. When the Argus, which had reached Senegal by the proscribed route, learned of the shipwreck, it set out methodically to search for the raft and its survivors. They nearly missed. After 13 days adrift, only 15 people of 150 remained alive. Among them was the ship’s surgeon, J. B. Henry Savigny. All were in bad shape.
Savigny wrote a detailed account of the Medusa and the raft and took it as a confidential message back to the Ministry in Paris. The government was awash in conflicting politics. The report was leaked. Within a day the opposition newspaper Journal de Debats carried the full, grim story. As fast as could be, by the communications of the day, the tale swept the world.
A young Paris painter, Théodore Géricault, was looking for a subject which he could paint for the next Salon. The most noticed paintings in previous salons were the big, historical, celebratory neoclassical pieces. But he was captivated by Le Radeax de la Méduse. He made countless sketches, interviewed Savigny (who would pose for him) and other survivors, made a trip to the sea to sense its smell and power, visited morgues to look at dead bodies, made models of the raft. He shaved his head so he wouldn’t be presentable in public, and for a year and a half poured everything in him to creating a huge canvas, 16' x 23.5', depicting the moment when the survivors on the raft sighted the Argus.
Nearly 1700 works of art were submitted for inclusion in the 1819 Salon. Although The Raft of the Medusa departed from all the norms and expectancies of the Salon – it was accepted – Géricault made one blunder. When asked where he wanted it hung, he specified a prominent high point over a doorway. After it was hung he realized the painting needed to be lower, closer to its viewers, so that they could feel the drama more intensely.
Public response was mixed. A newspaper critic described it as a delight for vultures. The great 19th-century French painter Ingres disliked it. The future great painter Delacroix was enamored – it would have a profound impact on his art. When the king came though to see the art and their artists, he made a cryptic comment to Géricault which was not negative.
When the painting was exhibited in London it drew 50,000 paying viewers. A Dublin show followed. Some French speculators–it would be hard to call them art lovers–proposed to purchase the painting and cut it up and sell smaller pieces. Fortunately, the king stepped in and purchased it for the Louvre.
Exhausted by the ordeal of painting the huge picture, and its aftermath, he returned to France in 1821, became ill, and died in 1824 at the age of 32, anguished that his life had been so fruitless. He had exhibited only three paintings.
In a four-volume The Lives of the Painters, John Canaday (1907-1985), the long-time art critic for the New York Times, wrote, “Géricault, who died young, exerted an influence so revolutionary that he stands as a dividing line between major periods in the history of painting.” (p.729)
“The Raft of the Medusa became, within a few years of Géricault’s death, a seminal work for two nominally opposed schools of nineteenth-century painting – romanticism and realism – at the same time it was admired by neoclassical conformists, opposed to both these schools . . .” (p.788)
Today The Raft of Medusa is prominently enshrined in the Louvre, at the proper display level. It is doubtful that many of the hundreds of thousands who see it each year have more than a vague idea of the tale behind its creation and its importance in art history.
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