It’s a famous painting, often parodied or quoted. Months ago I was talking to eyeteeth about it and we started looking up its history. The shipwreck and the painting have a story to tell that’s pertinent today.
After Napoleon was deposed, the French got a new royal government, the Bourbons. Shortly after they took over they sent some ships to West Africa on a colonial adventure. The Medusa carried 400 passengers and 160 crew.
The captain was an inexperienced political employee who should not have been given charge of a ship. He was chosen for his loyalty to the new regime, and was disliked by his crew.
The Medusa ran aground, and Captain De Chaumereys proceeded to fuck everything up. Instead of trying to float the ship free, he abandoned her. Special important privileged people were put in lifeboats, and everyone else was dumped on a raft. The lifeboats were to tow the raft.
Pretty soon the aristocrats in the lifeboats found it tiresome to pull the lesser beings in the raft and cut it loose. Their shipmates were now floating helplessly.
When the raft was found two weeks later, there were 15 survivors out of the 149 who had been abandoned and set adrift. Suicide, murder, and starvation took them. Five more died after their rescue. The French government declined to help the survivors to return home, so the British navy repatriated them.
The attempt at a coverup of this failed; survivors made sure that newspapers heard about it and at least one survivor published a popular book. Géricault was inspired to create the classic you see above, which was praised or condemned according to the politics of the viewer. The government nearly fell, and the captain was found guilty at court martial.
It was clear that some people on the raft had behaved badly (murder, cannibalism, madness). The blame for their degradation was, however, also clear. An arrogant government had given charge of people’s lives to an ignorant toady who had then shown incompetence and disregard for human life. The privileged had been saved and the others left to die.
In sum, the disaster and its aftermath showed the French people the true colors of their government.