‘The Raft of the Medusa’ in Britain
The shipwreck of the French frigate Medusa off the west coast of Africa in 1816 was one of the sensations of the post-Napoleonic War period. One hundred and fifty people were abandoned on a raft and subjected to horrifying experiences. In France, the tragedy had political repercussions, exposing tensions between the government and opposition factions.
Géricault was already a major figure in French art. But presenting a controversial contemporary subject, on a scale and in the manner of grand history painting, was artistically and politically provocative. Not surprisingly, the painting received much attention and divided critics at the Paris Salon of 1819.
Géricault also exhibited his painting in Britain, where the infamous shipwreck was well known. It was shown from July to December 1820 in the Egyptian Hall, a fashionable attraction in Piccadilly, London. The exhibition was a financial and critical success. You can judge its effect in room 8, where a full-scale copy of Géricault’s painting is displayed.