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The Real Corpses That Served as Models for the Doomed Crew of the “Raft of the Medusa”

For his most monumental painting, Théodore Géricault borrowed corpses from morgues and asylums to capture the ghastly horror of the 1816 Medusa shipwreck.

Théodore Géricault, "The Raft of the Medusa" (1818-19), oil on canvas, 193.3 × 281.9 inches (via Louvre Museum/Wikimedia)
Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818–19), oil on canvas, 193.3 × 281.9 inches (via Louvre Museum/Wikimedia)

As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.

For the 18 months Théodore Géricault worked on “The Raft of the Medusa,” he was the worst neighbor in Paris. He didn’t just want to represent the horror of the 1816 tragedy in which all but 10 of 150 people died on a makeshift raft that drifted at sea for almost two weeks; he wanted to visualize the gruesome fate of these human bodies. So he borrowed limbs and other bits of bodies from hospitals and brought them to his studio to sketch and paint their putrefaction.

Dolly Stolze writes on Strange Remains that to access his recently departed models, Géricault “developed relationships with the area hospitals and morgues to study what happens to the body right before and after death.” That wasn’t necessarily unusual; in the 19th century, the Paris morgue became something of a tourist destination.

Théodore Géricault, "Study of Feet and Hands" (1818-19), oil on canvas (via Musée Fabre/Wikimedia)
Théodore Géricault, “Study of Feet and Hands” (1818–19), oil on canvas (via Musée Fabre/Wikimedia)

However, for a young artist planning to showcase such a recent scandal — with its reports of cannibalism, throwing the weak into the sea, and general collapse of civilization — at the upcoming Paris Salon, it certainly was a bold obsession. Rupert Christiansen relates in his 2002 book The Victorian Visitors: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain how Géricault even “borrowed a severed head from the lunatic asylum and kept it on the roof of his studio for two weeks so that he could draw its features.”

Théodore Géricault, "Têtes coupées" (1818-19), oil on canvas (via Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)
Théodore Géricault, “Têtes coupées” (1818–19), oil on canvas (via Nationalmuseum/Wikimedia)

Critics and the public were, perhaps unsurprisingly, appalled at the 1819 Salon when the painting debuted. One derided it, maybe more accurately than he knew, as a “pile of corpses.” Yet others appreciated its meticulous detail to the human form in all its states. Critic Gustave Planche in 1851 marveled at the slumped figure in the foreground, stating that all “the parts of this corpse are rendered with an amazing and frightening fidelity.”

Now “The Raft of the Medusa” hangs in the Louvre in Paris, the colossal canvas still a captivating visual experience with its unconventional composition and odd triumph of survival in its tragedy. What’s mostly forgotten are the paintings Géricault kept to himself from this period. Paul Koudounaris noted on the Morbid Anatomy blog that these studies, although lushly painted, seem to have been “entirely for the artist’s own edification — they were not sold to collectors, and most remained in his studio when he died at the age of 32 in 1824, and were offered as lots in his estate sale.” Those that survive, scattered to various museums, might not be on many souvenir postcards, but they are moving still lifes of the fragmented human body in its decay.

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