Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics: Room guide: Room 8: 'The Raft of Medusa'

Pierre-Désiré Guillemet and Etienne-Antoine-Eugène Ronjat, after Théodore Géricault - The Raft of the Medusa 1859-60

Pierre-Désiré Guillemet and Etienne-Antoine-Eugène Ronjat, after Théodore GéricaultThe Raft of the Medusa 1859–60

Musée de Picardie, Amiens

‘The Raft of Medusa’

One of the highlights of this exhibition is an in-depth study of the impact of Théodore Géricault’s seminal painting, The Raft of the Meudsa, which was exhibited in London in 1820. Room 2 provides an introduction to the painting and its impact on British viewers. In this room you can experience for yourself something of the impact of painting when was shown, in a room of its own, at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The painting shown in this room is a full-scale copy of Géricault’s painting. It was made in 1859-60 by two French academicians, as Géricault’s experimental technique had caused his original to deteriorate. The original is now in the Louvre, in Paris.

The painting deals with the tragedy of the flagship Medusa, which was carrying French soldiers and settlers to the colony of Senegal in West Africa. On 2 July 1816 it foundered off the West African coast, and the captain and over 200 passengers boarded lifeboats. The remaining 150 made a raft which they attached to the lifeboats by ropes. This quickly became detached, leaving them stranded. Thirteen days passed before the raft was spotted by a ship called The Argus. The fifteen survivors had descended to cannibalism; at the time of their rescue they were described as ‘lying on the boards, hands and mouth still dripping with the blood of their unhappy victims, shreds of flesh hanging from the raft’s mast’.

The tragedy of the Medusa was blamed on official negligence and provoked national outrage in France. But the subject fascinated Géricault, who painstakingly researched the event in order to produce his twenty-four-foot (7 m) wide canvas. His painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1819, and then travelled to London where forty thousand people paid the one shilling entrance charge to see it.