Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19

Perhaps this is one of the most famous narrative paintings ever, and Gericault really knocked it out of the park here. In fact, he painted it at the tender age of 27 and launched his career with it. In 1816 the French naval ship ‘The Medusa’ was wrecked on a sandbar 100km off the west coast of Africa, due to the incompetence of the inexperienced captain Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys. The Medusa held 400 passengers and crew, but only had boats for 250, so 147 people were put onto a hastily-built raft, with the intention that the boats tow the raft. Unfortunately, that task proved too difficult and the raft was soon let loose. There was only one day’s worth of food ration aboard, two casks of water (that were lost overboard because of a fight), and six casks of wine. It was 13 days before those on the raft just happened to catch sight of another ship and were rescued, but by that time the number of raft-goers had dwindled to just 15. There were stories of crazed men killing off the weakest and eating them in order to survive. What a horrible nightmare it must have been!
News of the shipwreck soon made its way back to France and the newly reinstated monarchy was blamed for having placed such an inept man as captain in the first place. Gericault rode that wave of public indignation straight into our hearts for ever more.

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