Shipwrecks in Romantic Art

1.0  Introduction

Disasters at sea loomed large in the early 19th century imagination (Clark, 1973) and the tragedy of shipwreck became a powerful figurative image in 18th and 19th century painting. Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) painted chiefly classical landscapes after the manner of Claude Lorrain (Read, 1994), produced A Seastorm (1752) and A Storm with a Shipwreck in 1754, see Figure 1.


Figure 1A Storm with a Shipwreck (1754).

Vernet painted a number of pictures of natural disaster, especially shipwrecks, and Diderot writing of the Paris Salon of 1767 described Vernet thus: “The greatest landscapist has his own peculiar obsession; it is a kind of sacred horror. His cavers are deep and gloomy; precipitous rocks threaten the sky…man passes through the domain of demons and gods.” (Cited in Vaughan, 1994). Moreover, A Storm with a Shipwreck provided “…an interesting link between the storms painted during the seventeenth century by Dutch marine painters such as the Van de Veldes and those to be painted later by artists such as J. M. W. Turner.” (Lucie-Smith, 1971). Another example of Romantic imagery of maritime disaster includes The Wreck of the Hope (1824), see Figure 2, also known as Arctic Shipwreck and Polar Sea by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

wreck of hope

Figure 2The Wreck of the Hope (1824).

J. M. W. Turner painted Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On in 1839, see Figure 3, and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867) painted The Abandoned in 1856 depicting survivors in a lifeboat.


Figure 3Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhoon Coming On (1939).

Both the Wreck of the Hope and Slave Ship pictured real incidents but, unlike Gericault’s  The Raft of the Medusa (1818), did not generate political passions. Friedrich’s Wreck of the Hope is one of his major works based upon Edward William Parry’s ill-fated polar expedition of 119-1820. In a desolate polar landscape a sailing ship is crushed by ice in a scene dominated by a central pyramidal composition that “…separates the relentless motion of the ice, as it crushes the trapped ship, from the open spaces beyond.” (Vaughan, 1994). In the Romantic sense the imagery can be “…understood as a symbol of epochal disaster, encompassing both the futility of human effort and the human capacity to hope against all odds.” (Wolf, 1999). This dominating theme of human hope in the face of awesome nature and hope for salvation is exemplified in Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa and Turner’s The Shipwreck (1805)  and the S

The imagery of shipwreck and maritime ordeal will be explored by an in-depth consideration of Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Turner’s The Shipwreck and The Wreck of of a Transport Ship, Delacroix’s Barque of Dante and The Shipwreck of Don Juan. There is a consideration of the phenomenon of romanticism in painting  and the aspects of it which characterise the works studied in detail. Romanticism can be distinguished by, and suggested by a sentimental, idealised or even fantastic view of reality that is separate from individual experience. It is therefore a visionary and imaginative art concerned more with feeling and emotion than with form and aesthetic qualities. Romanticism, even though it is a label, alludes to grandeur and the picturesque rather than finish and proportion. It encompasses the numinous in its reverence for the subjective, the spiritual and the awe inspiring.

The paintings discussed will show Romanticism was concerned above all with the “…uniqueness and unique value of every human being in a constantly changing cosmos.” (Honour, 1991). This was echoed by Romantic art being one in which “…the form is determined by the inner idea of the content of substance that this art is called upon to represent.” (Hegel, 1818). The definition of Romantic art is paradoxical. Its elusive description is sometimes shrouded in retrospective and dubious psychological terminology which clouds understanding of the movement, its era, and social origins. Within Romantic art there is an underlying yearning for harmony between man and all-pervasive and awesome nature. The study of the image of shipwreck and maritime ordeal in Romantic painting exemplified by Gericault, Turner, and Delacroix, will hopefully explain the seeming contradictions that characterise Romantic art.

2.  Romantic art and the yearning for harmony

The Romantic era of the early 19th century was an international phenomenon and affected all arts alike. It was an intellectual movement flourishing in Europe between the mid-18th and 19th centuries that reached its zenith between 1790 and 1840. Romanticism inspired the revival of Gothic style architecture, in literature the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron’s poetry, the music of Schumann, the art of Gericault, and thus “…the Romantic movement, the movement of an extended curiosity and an enfranchised imagination…” (Stevenson, 1903) captured popular and individual taste, and championed acceptance of what Stendahl called “…passion in its own right…” (cited in Fischer, 1963).

Romanticism can be conceived as a counter-Enlightenment movement reflecting a profound revolution in the human spirit that gathered momentum during the late 18th century and reached full flood during the 19th century. The Romantics believed in the uniqueness of individual expression derived from life experience. Romantic art typically strove to express states of feeling too intense, mystical and elusive to be clearly defined. Romanticism arose during the 1790’s as a consequence of the final stages of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. In simplistic terms it was a contradictory and passionate protest movement, a revolt of the burgeoning petty-bourgeois against the classicism of the nobility, and “…against rules and standards, against aristocratic form…against content from which all common issues were excluded.” (Fischer, 1963).

The Romantic effect was first felt during the 18th century cult of the picaresque. The picaresque described qualities of irregularity and ruggedness, e.g., rocks, ruins, architectural elements, regarded as aesthetically enhancing to landscapes and garden design. Examples in painting can be seen with he works of Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), lClaude Lorrain (1600-1682), Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), and essayed by Uvedale Price (1794). The trend was recognised further in the mainly German literary movement Sturm und Drang – Storm and Stress – with its melodramatic and chaotic expression of violent emotion.

In France, by 1830, Romantic painting was rapidly replacing the calm, restrained feeling, the clear and complete expression of the neo-classical style. Romanticism was in effect in complete, but nonetheless ambiguous, opposition to Neo-classicism. It represented a marked reaction to the Enlightenment’s rationalism and Neo-classicism’s ordered style. Romanticism and Neo-classicism are commonly seen as antithetical and thereby representing polarities in attitude. The Neo-classicists, champions of the heritage of David (1748-1825), claimed to defend order and accused the Romantics of being revolutionaries, having introduced anarchy into art. Neo-classical Ingres (1780-1867) remained in the 19th century an unswerving adversary of the Romantic Delacroix.

Both Neo-classicism and Romanticism shared concerns with the ideal rather than the real. Both embraced concepts of virtue, grandeur, nobility and superiority. Neo-classicism entertained the ideal of a possible world where man adapted to a society that he had moulded into an ordered setting – hierarchy as art. Romanticism envisage a world of the impossible, the unlikely, the unattainable. The Romantic hero years for harmony in a hostile and contradictory environment, whereas the Neo-classical hero is a fatalist whose triumph emerges out of his acquiescence to events he cannot control. That is the essence of the classical hero. The fatalist Romantic pits himself against adversity, win of lose, in an attempt to wrest control from or impose harmony on nature. That is the essence of the Romantic hero and catastrophe as art.

Romanticism became “…a new school, which for the lack of a better name might as well be called Romantic.” (Eichner, 1972), but which nonetheless reflected a definite revolution in the human values, an historical and not a universal aspect of the psyche common to all epochs and societies. A single definition of Romanticism’s manifested variations is impossible because those “…definitions of Romanticism formulated during the 19th century are so contradictory that they cannot be reduced to a single coherent system.” (Honour, 1991). All Romantics entertained a “…Faustian or Byronic belief in the insatiability of the individual…(Fischer, 1963) indicating a state of mind or corpus of attitudes and not a set of stylistic traits. This underlies the view that not only is the Romantic “…that which cannot be defined.” (Torieux, 1829) but for Romantic artists “…diversity is their most obvious characteristic, yet they present attitudes to art and life which differ fundamentally from those previously expressed.” (Honour, 1991).

There is no Romantic formula or style. Leading Romantic artists differ noticeably from one another as with the Germans Runge and Friedrich, the Frenchmen Gericault and Delacroix, and Blake, Turner and Constable in England (Chilvers, 1997). These artists sought to understand and convey the values of both intuition and instinct and, as such, were more concerned with qualities rather than rules. Examples are by the German Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) whose The Lesson of the Nightingale (1804-1805), see Figure 4,


Figure 4. The Lesson of the Nightiingale (180-1805). Philipp Otto Runge

is an attempt to create harmony between figures and nature using the device of a picture within a picture, and his Morning (1808) employs the compositional device of a nude female figure emerging above the sea to express nature striving towards the sunlight, see Figure 5.


Figure 5.  Morning (1808) Philipp Otto Runge.

Another German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) painted his Wanderer Watching a Sea of Fog (1817-1818) which, with its solitary mountain-top individual gazing alone into a cold and forbidding, almost infinite landscape, epitomises the Romantic individual contemplating the awe-inspiring vista of nature, see Figure 6.


Figure 6.  Wanderer Watching a Sea of Fog (1817-1818). Caspar David Friedrich.

Friedrich’s Moonrise over the Sea (1822), see Figure 7,  again epitomises the contemplative Romanticism of his work. Its three figures two women and man dressed in medieval costume, has a warm toned and yet supernatural quality. They watch the return of two ships from a voyage  which may metaphorically, as a in the boat these, express the passage


Figure 7Moonrise over the Sea (1822).  Caspar David Friedrich.

and end of human life as a journey. Friedrich’s spirituality is again apparent in his Abbey under Oak Trees (1809-1810) where Gothic ruins supposedly symbolise pre-Christian nature religion and a funeral procession of monks proceeds towards an open grave, see Figure 8. Again, the haunting landscape, distant light filled heavens, overwhelms the tiny


Figure 8Abbey under Oak Trees (1809-1810). Caspar David Friedrich.

figures, the promise of a better world beyond symbolising Germany’s recent liberation from the oppression of the Napoleonic Empire.

In England a spirit of a national ‘Englishness’ spirit was apparent in the landscapes of John Constable (1176-1837) who infused his wistful English vista with a quiet, profound and earthy feeling. His Weymouth Bay (1816), see Figure 9. shows the masterly painterly style and the handling of light and colour so admired by Gericault and Delacroix. The bay is

Weymouth Bay

Figure 9.  Weymouth Bay (1816).  John Constable.

shown as a lonely place, a strange twilight scene expressing the passage of time as visual impression in painting. Constanble’s water colour of Old sarum (1834), see Figure 10, ith

old sarum

Figure 10Old Sarum (1834).  John Constable

with its keynote sky and vibrant and shimmering atmospheric colour is for him representative of a national feature of England. It also symbolises the process of decay, and thus a theme which Constable was preoccupied, as he witnessed the passing of the rural in the face of the Industrial revolution. Again this Romantic nostalgia is apparent in his famous painting Flatford Mill (1817), see Figure 11. In 1826 he painted The Cornfield and in 1831 his Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. Prior to which he painted his Chain Pier, Brighton, in 1831, see Figure 12.


Figure 11. Flatford Mill (1817). John Constable.

Chain Pier

Figure 12.  Chain Pier, Brighton (1827).  John Constable.

The works of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) stress individual perception, especially of powerful atmospheric effects and the enormous energy of storm vortexes. Eventually Turner progressed to an almost total preoccupation with the effects of colour and light where the distinctiveness of objects in the composition became blurred, dissolved in a shimmer of mist, clouds, snow and sea. His Peace – Burial at Sea (1842), see Figure 13, was painted in memory of his Scottish artist friend Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) and is a moving and

Burial at Sea

Figure 13Peace – Burial at Sea. (1842). W. Turner.

and expressive image. The visual splendour of the sky is reflected in the water as the dour black steamship on which Wilkie dies carries out its night-time funeral duty. Turner’s famous The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to he Last Berth (1838), see Figure 14,  is shown against a lustrous and atmospheric sunset background as the old ship-of-the-line is


Figure 14.  The Fighting Temeraire Towed to her Last Birth (1838). W. Turner.

towed on her last journey by a modern steam paddle tug. Again the theme is one of the passing of old naval glories, the passage of time, the ship a ghost of the past, a shadow of previous power, as she travels on a final journey decreed by the advancing technological era. The atmospheric treatment by Turner pergaps symbolises a shroud for the passing of the old veteran ship.

In France  the first Romantic painters found inspiration in contemporary events. The major figure was Theodore Gericault whose powerful masterpiece The Raft of the Mdusa became a seminal work, but he also painted battle pictures expressing heroism, endurance and suffering such as the Wounded Currassier (1814), see Figure 15, with powerful brushstrokes and contrasting light to emphasise vulnerability and isolation. An essential these – the preoccupation with the human condition.


Figure 15The Wounded Curassier (1814). Theodore Gericault.

Gericault strongly influenced Delacroix whose flamboyant canvases on literary and historical themes came to epitomise the common idea of Romantic painting. Examples include Massacre at Chios (1824), see Figure 16, the overwhelming and dramatic Death of Sardanapulus (1827-1828), see Figure 17, the famous


Figure 16Massacre at Chios (1824).


Figure 17Death of Sardanapulus (1827-28).

and classically composed but Romantic Revolutionary Liberty Leading the People (1830), see Figure 18, and the tragically powerful yet beautiful Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), see Figure 19, with its despairing symbolic gesture of a surrendering woman so indicative of a Byronic image.


Figure 18Liberty Leading the People (1830).


Figure 19. Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826).

In Spain Francisco Goya (1746-1828) depicted the horrors of war in such works as The Third of May, 1808 (1814), see Figure 20, with its broadly brushed incident of defiance in the face of certain death by firing squad.


Figure 20The Third of May, 1808 (1814).

The positive side of Romanticism was its commitment to feeling and to the right of the 1ndividual to self-expression (Lucie-Smith, 1996), whereas its negativism expressed itself in a somewhat disorganised revolt against the formal, contained and intellectualised style of Neo-classicism. The most important components in Romantic art are its feeling for nature, its emphasis on imagination rather than the rational, an abiding sense of the historical, and an interest in the exotic and the mysterious (Read, 1994) thus for the Romantic “…individual sensibility was the only faculty of aesthetic judgement.” (Honour, 1991). This aspect was that which conferred validity on their work not style or technique employed. The ambiguity of Romanticism can be shown by the views of Delacroix who opined to a friend in 1854 that “If one understands by my Romanticism the free manifestations of my personal impressions, my aversion for the stereotypes of the schools and my repugnance for academic formulae, I must admit not only that I am a Romantic but that I was so at the age of fifteen: I already preferred Prud’hon and Gros to Guerin and Girodet.” (Silvestre, 1878) which can be compared to Delacroix’s further description of himself – “Je suis un pur classique.” (Jamot, 1928). Perhaps Delacroix is justifying the idea, as possibly does Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, that inside every Romantic there is a classicist struggling to get out.

3. Gericault and the tragedy of The Raft of the Medusa

Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) entered the studio of Carle Vernet (1758-­1824), the equestrian artist and bathe painter, in 1808. In 1810 he went to Pierre ­Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) but stifled by his Neoclassicism Gericault worked in the Louvre copying Rubens, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Rembrandt, van Dyck, and Raphael. In Italy (1816-1817) he was influenced by the works of Michelangelo. In England (1820-1822) he was impressed by Constable, Hogarth, and Wilkie. A military equestrian picture Charging Light Cavalry Officer (1812) established his fame, described as “…the hieroglyphic of romantic figure painting which Delacroix enriched, but did not excel.” (Clark, 1973). Gericault spent his early years surrounded by the adventurous world of horses, soldiers and militaria. He painted his famous Wounded Curassier in 1814.

Perhaps the most influential French painter of his time Gericault became a seminal figure in 19th century Romantic art. His pictures show bold design, stimulate powerful emotions and are expressed in dramatic colour. Gericault took the classicism of David and imbued it with passion and life and his Raft of the Medusa shows that within “…every Romantic artist is a longing for the authority of classicism…” (Clark, 1973). The features of Gericault’s art appear in developed form in his overpowering and immense canvas Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), which was executed with compelling realism. The story of the artist himself is tragic and “…throughout Gericault’s work there runs a thread of psychic darkness…” (Brookner, 1997a). Despite this he imbued The Raft of the Medusa with a message of hope and the painting became an inspiration for younger artists, including Delacroix (Wilson-Smith, 1992).

On July 2″d, 1816, the French government frigate La Meduse, flagship of a convoy carrying troops and settlers to Senegal, ran aground near Cap Blanco, on the West African coast (Eitner, 1983). The convoy comprised the Echo (corvette) with Captain Venancourt, La Loire (flute) with Lieutenant Destouches, and the Argus (a brig) with Lieutenant Pamojon (McLeod, 1822; 1846). The expedition consisted of 365 persons, including 21 women and 8 children with also about 400 aboard the Meduse (Savigny, 1818). She struck bottom and foundered in calm seas and clear weather on the Arguin Shoals due to the incompetence of her returned Royalist émigré captain Huges Duroys de Chaumareys. Captain Chaumareys’ poor seamanship had enabled him to outrun his convoy and by weaving an erratic course had stranded his ship on the banks. There was no hope of assistance to thus refloat him. The first unauthorised report of the incident appeared soon after survivors of the raft returned to Paris (Journal des Debats, 1816). After two days the ship was abandoned on the morning of July 5th when she began to break up. Of Medusa’s 400 passengers and crew the boats could only take about 250. A raft was constructed, some 20 by 8.5 metres, from lashed beams and masts after the captain and officers had commandeered the lifeboats and left soldiers and lower ranks to the raft (Eitner, 1983). Some 150 people, including women, crowded the raft which submerged under their weight. Savigny, ship’s surgeon and raft survivor, wrote “…it had sunk at least three feet, and so closely were we huddled together that it was impossible to move a single step. Fore and aft, we had the water up to our middle.” (Times, 1816). Flouting an agreement to tow the raft to shore the boat crews cut the cables and left the raft to the mercy of the winds, waves and currents. The raft had lithe food and drink and no means of navigation. During the night several were carried off by the sea. The following day witnessed fighting, mutiny, drunkenness. Several were killed in the ensuing battle  and hunger drove some to cannibalism, thus Savigny wrote survivors “…threw themselves ravenously on the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, cut them up in slices, which some even that instant devoured.” (Savigny, 1818). The raft endured days of thirst, hunger, exposure, murder, and insanity, with all practising anthropophagy by the fourth day. By the sixth day only 28 survivors remained of whom 15 existed for some days longer. The sick, by majority decision, were thrown into the sea. On July 17th after no further losses, Captain Dupont sights a ship on the horizon but they were not seen despite desperate signals thus “…the brig disappeared. From the delirium of joy we passed to that of dejection and grief.” (Times, 1816). The brig was the Argus sent to search and then returned to sight the raft — of the 15 survivors rescued 5 perished soon after aboard Argus. The raft drifted south for 13 days and cost 145 lives.

Following the initial reports in the Journal des Debats (1816) and the London Times translation (1816) Henri Savigny, who had been ship’s surgeon aboard Medusa (Eitner, 1972; McKee, 1975), and Alexandre Correard the ship’s naval engineer and geographer (McKee, 1975; Eitner, 1983) published the first edition about the ordeal of the raft (Savigny, 1817). Due to public concern about the scandal and consequent demand a second edition followed (Savigny, J.B.H. 1818), a third (Correard, 1821), then a fourth (Correard, 1821). An English translation appeared (Savigny, 1818) as well as other English accounts (McLeod, 1822; 1846). Savigny also published his doctoral thesis concerning the effects of starvation on the raft (Savigny, 1818).

The horrendous aspects has whetted public appetite ever since. A three act contemporary drama published later (Moncrieff, 1830) elicited a comment (Quarterly Review, 1818) that “…a very relaxed state of discipline, and an ignorance of the common principles of navigation, that would have disgraced a merchant ship, this frigate was suffered to run aground on the bank of Arguin.” The passage alludes to the incompetence of Medusa’s captain, a customs officer and Bourbon political favourite appointed to command veteran French seamen who had served gallantly at the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar (McKee, 1975). The same play reviewed (Edinburgh review, 1818) refers to Savigny and Correard’s book thus: “Never was there a recital more terrible, it makes one shudder in every page, and tremble at every line… all the imaginary horrors of our melodramas, and our tragedies, shrink to nothingness before the real horrors of this dreadful catastrophe.” Later works contained references to Mme Dard nee Picard, a female survivor of the wreck (Lawrence, 1931), and another book (Praviel, 1934). An historical novel appeared (MacArthur, 1938), followed by a further French naval monograph (Tonnele, 1965), also again in France (Bordenove,  1973), then a study concentrating more on Gericault’s picture (McKee, 1975) preceded by a book on the Raft of the Medusa itself (Eitner, 1972), and still more recently (Barnes, 1989).

Gericault determined to create an authentically accurate and life size painting, an illustration, of some aspect of the loss of the Medusa (Wilson-Smith, 1992) having returned from Italy in 1817 (Honour, 1991). No one knows when he decided the raft would be his subject (McKee, 1975), but probably began his research phase early in 1818 when a decision had been made for a monumental work because he purchased the canvas on 24.2.1818 (Rosenthal, 1980), and certainly used spring and summer of 1818 to complete initial studies and information (Eitner, 1972). Gericault set out consciously to create a picture that would “…strike at the heart of the corruption and inadequacies of the society of the restored monarchy… (Upstone,  1993) because for many the loss of the Medusa and the consequent inquiry “…summed up the plight of France under the Bourbons.” (Either, 1983), and the entire scandalous episode struck at the core of Restoration corruption (Upstone, 1993). Gericault may have sympathised with the slightly later view describing the youth of post-Restoration France (Honour, 1991) that: “There is no more love. There is no more glory. A thick night covers the earth. And we shall be dead before dawn.” (Musset, 1836). Gericault knew that an enquiry of the wreck of the Medusa had taken place aboard a warship in Rochefort harbour in February-March 1817. Captain Chaumareys was degraded and imprisoned for three years (Either, 1972) though the trial and sentence was not reported in the press (Correard, 1821; Tonnele, 1965). Correard lost 10,000 francs in the wreck (Jal, 1877) and along with Savigny was dismissed the service, facing fines, harassment and imprisonment for their continued petitioning for compensation for the victims (Eitner, 1972).

Gericault began by accumulating authentic documents, interviewed survivors including Savigny and Correard, and collected popular lithographs of the shipwreck (Joannides, 1975). He submerged himself in the whole episode — in order to depict the drama of the tragedy he had to understand it, feel it, to empathise thoroughly. The preparation stage took ten months and was a gradual process with no early visualisation. He studied all the grisly aspects and then located Medusa’s carpenter — one sergeant of artillery called Lavalette — and had a scale model made of the actual raft the man had originally constructed. The model was made in the larger studio Gericault rented to accommodate the huge canvas in Rue de Faubourg du Roule. He worked in the approved academic manner with systematic steps from swift initial sketches, then a concept of general composition, to wonderful nude studies for individual figures which were “…drawn with a precision of outline and volumetric clarity equalled by few neo-classical draughtsmen.” (Honour, 1991).

For Gericault some drawings served as compositional studies. Considerations of scenes of torment, sickness and death caused Gericault to visit hospitals and mortuaries to draw and paint cadavers, see Figures 21 and 22, and executed criminals of which he drew several severed heads, see Figure 23.

body parts

Figure 21.  Oil study of  dissected limbs. Now in Musee Fabre, Montpellier.


Figure 22. Oil study of dissected limbs.

cadaver heads

Figure 23.  Oil study of two severed heads. Now in Stockholm Nationalmuseum.

Moreover he painted other macabre oil sketches of severed remains which he borrowed and studied in his studio Delacroix described as “…the best argument for beauty as it ought to be understood.” (cited in Honour, 1991). True — these studies possess not only painterly brilliance but a dispassionate clinical directness. In addition Gericault undertook studies of negroes, as well as portrait studies for characterisations of the figures on the raft scene.

Gericault finally settled on the sighting of the Argus as his final composition for which he had produced two preliminary oil sketches. The initial sighting of the Argus, as does the final canvas itself, expresses the Romantic sentiment that we “…are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.” (Barnes, 1989). The picture The Raft of the Medusa, see Figure 24, also reflects Gericault’s “…characteristic habit of building his compositions by successive additions and transformations…” as well as his tendency to “…cling to figure motifs once he had invented them…” (Eitner, 1983). The raft drifts alone on a ragged and rough ocean where the Argus has been reduced to a speck on a horizon that has been raised high up the picture. The composition follows the conventions of the grand style with the raft’s survivors miraculously displaying, despite the deprivations of their ordeal, the healthy physique of Greek athletes. The figures on the raft form a pyramid, many of the figures based on Michelangelo. The arrangement of the figures, in contrast to the chaos of the surrounding sea, have a solidity with the pinnacle of the figure arrangement having a cloth waving negro at its peak.


Figure 24. The Raft of the Medusa.  Louvre, Paris.

In the centre stands Savigny, the Medusa’a still uniformed surgeon as “… he leans against the mast, his look is resigned, and indicates that he has scarcely a hope of being saved…”. And another central figure, his friend Correard “…takes him by the arm, and endeavours to inspire him with a feeling of confidence which he himself but faintly entertains.” (Gerricault, 1820). Correard, Savigny, and Lavalette all posed as themselves in Gericault’s studio. Other personal friends lent their co-operation. A former school friend, Theodore Lebrun, posed for the head of the father who holds his dead son on the left of the raft, and an officer friend, Dastier, is the man who attempts to raise himself at the far right. Another friend, Martigny, posed for the shrouded corpse on the lower right, and Delacroix posed for the young man lying face down on the raft. The father’s body is that of the professional model Cadamar, who lent his athletic shape, and the famous black model Joseph posed for all three negro figures, see Figure 25.


Figure 25. Portrait Study of the Negro Model Joseph.  In Buhler Collection, Switzerland.

The corpse lying on its back at the extreme left is Gericault’s friend Garland. Gericault worked from dawn till dusk and finished the canvas in eight months. Preferring to work alone Gericault rarely left the house and even ate all his meals in the studio which he shared with his pupil Louis-Alexis Jamar — incidentally used for figure and portrait studies. Moreover, he allowed only a few confidants and friends into the studio. These included his closest friend Dedreux-Dory, the painter Robert-Fleury, and two pupils of Horace Vernet called Montfort and Lehoux. Delacroix, still a pupil of Guerin, also visited. Delacroix recorded later ‘The impression it gave me was so strong that as I left the studio I broke into a run, and kept running like a fool all the way back to the Rue de la Planche where I lived then, at the far end of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.” (cited in McKee, 1975).

Compositionally all figures are fused, using the pyramid device, into a single action. All figures converge into a singular design. The figures have a strange pallor due to the muted colours used. The general hue is that of a twilight effect even though the incident takes place in the morning sun’s diffuse glow. Certainly this is due also to the scattering of light and shadow found in studio lighting available to Gericault. Again, we see the purpose of Gericault’s macabre study of cadaverous parts. He thus studied the process of decay in order to witness and reproduce changes in actual colour.

When finished Gericault removed the canvas to the Theatre Wien prior to exhibition in the salon. His eighteen months of work, ten of preparation, eight of painting, was now complete. Critics were puzzled and divided. The critic from La Gazette de France condemned the picture as “…a work for the delight of vultures…” (cited in McKee, 1975), and one from the Revue des Encyclopaediascomplained that cannibalised corpses were nowhere to be seen. Others perceived a debt to Michelangelo in the treatment of the nudes, to Rubens in the fluent brushwork, and to Caravaggio “…in the stark mood and in the earthy colours.” (Wilson-Smith, 1992). It was seen as an academic exercise, because the studio component was self evident, and therefore “…a highly artificial performance made up of elements from Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Pierre Guerin…” (Clark, 1973). Few at first recognised that Gericault had attempted to raise a contemporary incident beyond reportage and triviality. Gericault’s canvas had raised the incident to the dignity of monumental art. It was in truth a carefully constructed and dramatic composition that initiated the conflict between the Romantic movement and Neo-classical art. In the Salon, the picture was studied by Louis XVIII who apparently said to Gericault “You’ve made a shipwreck which isn’t for us.” (Moniteur Universel, 1819). An ambiguous statement presumed to mean there was no ‘shipwreck’ for the Bourbon monarchy in the offing.

William Bullock, owner of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly arranged for the exhibition of The Raft of the Medusa in 1820. Indifferent to French naval scandals the spectators in England judged the work on its merits as a work of art. Critical acclaim stated it was a “…tremendous picture of human suffering…one of the finest specimens of the French School ever brought to this country.” (Literary Gazette, 1820, cited in McKee, 1975). In England the spectators felt, as Gericault had intended, that “…all humanity is a raft of desperate men, surrounded by the dead and dying, but suddenly united by hope.” (Clark, 1973). This suggests a certain romantic appeal for an island people just emerging from the privations of the Napoleonic wars. The response in England was perhaps prejudged by the words of Gericault’s son who wrote in the descriptive pamphlet for the exhibition that art “…has limits which human skill cannot pass, but Imagination, like Nature, knows no bounds, and happy is the painter if he succeeds in only inducing in the spectator a frame of mind susceptible of conceiving the scene which he has endeavoured to trace.” (Gerricault, 1820).

4.0 Turner and maritime disaster

J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the most original and greatest of all landscape painters. His abundant talent took him to the Royal Academy Schools in 1789 where he was influenced by Cozens, Wilson, and Girtin. Turner first exhibited at the Royal Academy with his Fisherman at Sea (1798) which showed his admiration for 17th century Dutch marine painting. From 1802 he studied Dutch landscapes and compositions of the French landscapist Claude Lorrain. In the early 1800’s the Romantic trend with dramatisation of subjects became increasingly evident in his work. From 1804 Turner’s concentration was upon the atmospheric effect of light. This period culminated in his powerful 1805 composition The Shipwreck, see Figure 26 with its drama and sense of movement. As a Romantic landscape and seascape painter Turners pictures now “…transcend ordinary appearances, conveying a visionary sense of the forces at work in the universe.” (Wolf, 1999).

Turner shipwreck

Figure 26. The Shipwreck (1805).

Turners English Romantic art is paradoxical. In one sense, as a Royal Academician he felt drawn to the antique and the classical, and yet “…thecolouristic basis of his art tended to subvert the neo-classical aesthetic of his day.” (Gage,  1998). Turner’s Romanticism can be appreciated by examining his shipwreck pictures in which his tragic vision of the world where “… reality and fantasy merge…” and “…colour is used to metaphorically evoke the power of natural phenomena.” (Wolf, 1999), becomes manifest.

Turner painted The Shipwreck in 1805, in the same year as the Battle of Trafalgar, a period where maritime disaster and naval victories and defeats were matters of public concern and interest. Originally called The Storm it was the central exhibit in Turners recently established gallery in his own house. All the pictures shown were described, somewhat ungraciously, by his friend Hoppner as “… rank, crude, and disordered…”, and Benjamin West scathingly opined that they tended towards imbecility (cited in Lindsay, 1966). A possible stimulus for the picture was the publication of The Shipwreck, a poem first published in 1762 by William Falconer (Butler, & Joll, 1984).Despite criticism The Shipwreck was an instant success, bought for 300 guineas by Sir John Leicester (Finberg, 1967), it was Charles Turner who purchased the right to publish a mezzotint. It was the first of Turners paintings to be engraved. The critics were repelled because Turner presented them with “…a composition of the greatest originality but one impossible to analyse in classical terms.” (Walker, 1989).

In The Shipwreck Turner is stating categorically that elemental forces could not be adequately portrayed using the traditional techniques of landscape painting. Moreover, the picture is disturbing because, for the spectator, there is no point of safety, we are drawn into the drama, become participants in what seems to be a hopeless situation. The spectator is catapulted, like the wrecked sailors, into “…a fearful melee of conflicting directions occupying a diamond-shaped area, an agitated lozenge in the middle of the composition” (Clark, 1973). Thus Turner used a compositional device to reinforce the fearful situation conveyed by the picture as a whole. Spectators, as with Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, can no longer view from a secure vantage point, but are cast onto the vortex of the sea themselves. We also are forced to struggle despairingly in the wave troughs, gasping for breath, drenched to the skin, numbed with cold and praying for the rescuers to succeed in their heroic and desperate mission. A later work, see Figure 27, was Turner’s unfinished Fire at Sea (1835) possesses a drama that ”… centres upon the plight of women and children, a theme well calculated to touch the sensibilities of an early nineteenth century audience.” (Gaunt, W. 1992). The image, as with his Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810), explores the catastrophe of fire at sea — one of the worst ordeals to be faced on the ocean. Turner in Fire at Sea uses to great dramatic effect free brushwork and muted colours to create the swirling vortex of waves that sweeps the unfortunate away from a fiery doom towards a watery fate.

fire at sea

Figure 27Fire at Sea (1835).

The composition of The Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810), in contrast to The Shipwreck (1805), emphasises the wreck itself which occupies the foreground of the picture, see Figure 27. Often called The Wreck of the Minotaur it has caused confusion (Butler, & Joll, 1984). Initially exhibited as The Wreck of Minotaur, Seventy Four, on the Haak Sands, 22nd December, 1810, the catalogue stated painted between 1810-1812 “…for the father of the Earl of Yarborough who bought it in 1810.” (Butler, & Joll, 1984). The Minotaur was lost with 570 out of 680 aboard — with the engravers it was described as a British seventy-four off the Dutch coast in 1800. Nonetheless, the “… picture is a great conception of an appalling event… the deep tragedy of the scene is rendered in the sublimest poetry of the art.” (Athenaeum, 1849). It is not definitely known, therefore, if it is a particular wreck but “…the narrative strength of the picture does relate it to a tradition of wreck paintings, based on actual incidents…” (Gaunt, 1992). In the composition a gale has increased to a storm with every element at the sea’s mercy that even engulfs the spectator whose “… point of view is from the depths of a trough between the waves.” (Vaughan, 1994).

transport ship

Figure 28Wreck of the Transport Ship (1810).

Shipwreck paintings employed traditional compositional devices which Tumer learned from earlier Dutch masters, for example Van der Velde’s A Rising Gale (1801), see Figure 29. Hence the prominence of a dominant tilt, a keynote device, stressing the dramatic, the fragile diagonals and angles of oars, masts. These are juxtaposed to the swirling waves and leaden clouds.


Figure 29.  Rising Gale (1801). Van der Velde.

The Wreck of a Transport Ship is dominated by the across the canvas diagonal that creates a powerful vortex accentuating the awesomeness and dramatic impact of the sea. The spectator, like the sufferers, is sucked into the scene. Turner has masterfully recreated the surging waves by use of an opaque painting technique to convey the unseen dangers of the deeps.

5.0 Delacroix and stormy waters

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was born in Saint-Maurice-Charenton and first received instruction in the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) but in 1816 entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he met Gericault. Delacroix was

impressed by the drawings of Goya, and the paintings of Rubens and Veronese. Delacroix learnt much from Gericault and eventually became the master of the French Romantic movement and implacable enemy of Ingres. During this period the proponents of Davidian classicism accused Romantic painters of introducing anarchy into art.

The image of the sea and the theme of the boat appeared regularly in Delacroix’s career. He discovered the sea during regular visits to Valmont in his youth. He went to Brittany in 1834, Le Treport in 1838, and Trouville in 1841. His journal of 9.9.1852 states “This evening I enjoyed the sea for an hour and a half; I could not tear myself away.” The rages of the sea apparently awakened deep passions in him. Examples of the boat theme include: The Castaways (1821); The Barque of Dante (1822) where the boat floats in an inferno; the Shipwreck of Don Juan (1841) where the boat theme, transferred to an ocean setting, expresses the Romantic search for harmony between living beings and things; the Castaways in a Ships Boat (1847) where human beings conduct a bitter struggle for survival, blinded by passions preventing them realising the presence of the infinite. The theme of The Castaways (1847) is a faint echo of the Shipwreck of Don Juan (1841); Christ on the Lake of Gennesareth (1853) where calmness and light emerges out of the tempest that surrounds and threatens the boat and apostles; and Shipwreck on the Coast (1862) where the boat, which has run against an unknown shore, appears broken and abandoned symbolising the end of a tragic journey [Figure 38]. These works illustrate the Romantic concern for human fate at the mercy of natural forces, the boat becoming a key theme for Delacroix as did the massacre in other works.

Delacroix’s first major work was Dante and Virgil in Hell or The Barque of Dante first exhibited in the Salon of 1822, and a work which introduced innovations both in content and technique “…which were to determine his work from that point on[” (Wolf, 1999). Like Gericault a number of preliminary drawings were prepared by Delacroix. The picture was well received and eventually acquired for the Royal collection, and thus Delacroix achieved his own fame with a boat scene more terrible in subject even than the story of the survivors of the wreck of the Medusa.” (Wilson-Smith, 1992). Its subject was taken from the Divine Comedy (1321) of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and “…we can recognise the influence of Gericault, who may well have revealed to Delacroix the importance of dramatic feeling and its power of suggestion;” (Deslandres, 1963). The picture like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, is conceived in the grand style following the tradition of Michelangelo and Rubens. It was painted in about ten weeks, consuming 12-13 hours a day, at Delacroix’s studio at 22 Rue de la Planche, Paris.

The Eighth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, lines 25-69, were the inspiration for The Barque of Dante, see Figure 30. The picture caused a great sensation and had a ‘succes de scandal, even though critics hailed it with angry protests, scorn and derision. Wiser critics detected his learning from Gericault, noting ‘la hardiesse de Michelange’ (the boldness of Michelangelo), and la ficonditede Rubens’ (the fruitfulness of Rubens). Dante himself had been praised by Madame de Steel in her autobiographical novel ConinO. Anne Louise Germaine Necker (1766-1817) was a Swiss born French authoress who married Baron de Stael-Holstein. Madame de Steel also wrote Delphine, and had an influence on French Romanticism. Coning, or Italy (1807) is considered the first of the ‘feminist’ Romantic novels that consists of a psychological study of two tormented souls with a description of Italian morals and civilisation. In the book she praised Dante as “…a latter-day Homer…” and a man gifted with a visionary and bizarre imagination casting him in the role of predecessor to the modern concept of the alienated artist (Wolf, 1999). This illustrates the strong connection between Romantic literature and Romantic painting.


Figure 30. The Barque of Dante (1822).

For The Barque of Dante Delacroix set the scene in a Dantesque hell where all hope has been abandoned — a moment where Dante and Virgil are ferried across a lake to the infernal city of Dis — and “…where flounder guilty souls eaten by violent anger.” (Wilson-Smith, 1992). The picture was the first rendering of Dante’s vision in paint. The scene is a projection of Delacroix’s words in his Journal of 7.4.1824 thus: “In what darkness am I plunged…the future is all black. So is the past, which would not stay.” Again, on the 11.4.1824, Delacroix wrote in his Journal concerning The Barque of Dante that it “…has one fault… it lacks vigour; there is not enough impasto. The contours are washy; they are not decisive; I must always be on the watch for this.” We shall see later that he adopted a more vigorous colouristic style for The Shipwreck of Don Juan and Jesus Christ on the Sea of Gennersansth in the barque the poet Dante, garbed in a red hood and greenish-white cloak stands with Virgil on the way to hell. Virgil is Dante’s guide on the journey through Purgatory and the Inferno and is portrayed, impassive of face, with a brown cloak and laurel leaf crown. They are ferried by the boatman Phlegias with his muscular form swathed in a blue fluttering cloak. The muscular ferryman echoes the twisted and tensile forms of the damned who surround the boat in agonised postures. The figures struggle like despairing creatures and are thrown into relief by Delacroix’s use of light and dark contrasts.

The picture contains innovations in painterly style, impasto and echoes of the Michelangesque and Rubenesque inspired by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (Wolf, 1999). This is borne out by Delacroix’s comments in his Journal of 1.4.1824 when he wrote “… in his sublime Raft, what hands and heads! I cannot express the admiration I feel.” And further “I feel a longing to make a sketch of Gericault’s picture. I must be quick about it. What an excellent model it will be, and a precious reminder of this extraordinary man.” Despite its affinity with The Raft of the Medusa the critic Deladuze called The Barque of Dante a tartouillade or daub, whereas Gros described it as ‘purified Rubens’. (cited in Deslandres, 1963). Nonetheless the image of the barque was the inspiration for engravings by Gustave Dore (1832-1883) which illustrate not only Dante but also Dore’s own fantastic imagination and taste for the grotesque (Read, 1994).

The subject of the Shipwreck of Don Juan, see Figure 31, is the casting of lots taken from Byron’s unfinished epic satire Don Juan (1819-1824). Delacroix’s treatment is one where “…the mood of tragedy is again expressed by colour” (Wellington, 1999). The character Don Juan has an interesting history which explains its appeal to both Romantic poet and painter.

don juan

Figure 31.  Shipwreck of Don Juan.

Byron’s Don Juan, an epic of 16,000 lines in 16 cantos, bears only slight resemblance to the legendary Spanish rake and profligate. The story of Don Juan’s adventures begins in Spain but his mother Donna Inez sends him, aged 16. abroad He is shipwrecked and cast ashore a Greek island where the beautiful Haidee nurses him back to health. Lambro, the girl’s father, discovers the lovers tryst and captures him. Don Juan is then sold as a slave to Gulbeyas the Sultan of Constantinople, whereupon he becomes enamoured of the beautiful harem gin Dudu. The jealousy of Gulbeyas is aroused and Don Juan escapes to Russia where, as a soldier, he attracts Catherine the Great’s voracious attention Cathenne despatches him to London as a courier. The unknown origin of the Don Juan theme is derived from the statue of a dead man who accepts a libertine’s invitation to dinner. A somewhat Faustian motif that would appeal to the Romantic artist. Its first literary form is El Buriador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina (1630) which identified Don Juan in the form he has retained ever since — a young nobleman or hidalgo (hizo d’algo or man of consequence) from Seville. Tirso’s hero rapidly became thepseudonym for obsessive and unscrupulous pursuers of women whose internal contradictions have fascinated writers and artists ever since. The basic theme reached France via Italy, e.g., Moliere’s Don Juan 011 le Festin de Piens which, coincidentally, introduced Don Juan’s wife Elvire. Several other Spanish versions include Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by Jose Zorilla y Moral. French versions include stories and plays by Prosper Merimee (Merimee, 1989), Dumas pere, Alfred de Musset, Balzac, and Flaubert. The Merimee version (Merimee, 1834) mixes elements of Tirso’s legend with imaginative reconstruction of the life of the 17th century libertine Don Miguel Manara whose tomb Merimee saw in Seville in 1830. Also a short verse drama The Stone Guest by Pushkin, as well as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Richard Strauss’s Don Juan.

The passage of life as a boat on the sea theme was inspired by lines by Michelangelo that Delacroix copied into his journal on 12.1.1824 thus: “Already arrived, the course of my life/Across tempestuous sea in a frail bark/Before the common port…”. The Shipwreck of Don Juan is Delacroix’s mature work on the theme of the boat and shipwreck. Don Juan’s boat floats on an unresisting expanse against a wide horizon and it is “… impossible to look at the livid and funereal harmony of his Shipwreck of Don Juan…without being immediately held by an impression of sadness…” (Charlemont, 1867). The horizon forms a stripe across the canvas that crushes down upon the boat and “…the low, heavy sky weighs down like a lid.” (Baudelaire, 1828). The boat resembles an arrow travelling across space, enclosing a circle of men drawn inwards towards a centre where only death awaits them — the determined direction, their inescapable fate, dependency upon whims of wind and current, all appears in vain in the face of desolate emptiness. Delacroix thus reinforces the futility and the evil and the picture visualises the “… sinister in its full sense.” (Huyghe, 1963).

Delacroix’s style of strong and subtle colouring, not to mention his expressive and life-like draughtsmanship, can be seen in his Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret painted in 1854, see Figure 32, for which he had made a previous sketch in 1841. Both pictures admirably produce a stormy atmosphere with the supplicating and anguished apostles begging Christ for salvation. The picture appealed enormously to Vincent van Gogh who wrote enthralled to Emil Bernard on 23.6.1888 (Leeuw,  1996) thus: “Oh what a beautiful picture that is by Eugene Delacroix, Christ in the Boat on the Sea of Gennessaret! He — with his pale lemon. yellow aureole, sleeping, luminous in the dramatic purple, dark blue. blood-red patch of the group of bewildered disciples — on that terrible, emerald green sea, rising, rising, right to the top of the frame. Ah, what an inspired conception.”


Figure 32. Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret (1854).

Van Gogh’s enthusiastic description about the rising of a boat within a terrible green sea could also aptly describe Rembrandt’s picture of Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1633), see Figure 33. Colour is the key to appreciating how Delacroix expressed the drama in Christ on the Sea of Gennesaret and himself wrote that the work of a painter “…who is not a colourist is illumination rather than painting. If one intends something other than cameos, colour is, strictly speaking, one of the founding principles of painting, no less so than chiaroscuro, proportion and perspective… Colour gives the appearance of life.” (cited in Neret, 1999).


Figure 33. Christ in a Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1633) by Rembrandt.

Van Gogh, writing to his brother Theo on 3.9.1888, referred to “…that tempestuous sketch of La Barque du Christ.” (Leeuw, 1996). Comparing Delacroix’s ‘Barque du Christ with that of Rembrandt we can see that Van Gogh had perceived the different manner in the expression of imminent doom and drama — encapsulated in his letter to Emil Bernard 23.7.1888 thus: “Rembrandt works with tonal values in the same way that Delacroix works with colourist” (Leeuw,  1996).

6.0 Summary

We have seen how Gericault, Turner and Delacroix, used the theme of the boat, shipwreck and maritime travail to visualise the Romantic concept of human fate at the mercy of elemental forces. For the Romantic waves and water represented a threatening and unstable element with the boat “…as one of the oldest human symbols — the passage across life, a human life as small as a boat (Huyghe, 1963). As such shipwrecks became part of the iconography of Romanticism (Clark, 1973).

Shipwrecks, as catastrophies, always generate great interest because the sufferers are thrown at once, humanly speaking, upon their own exertions, and must look for escape from nothing else.” (McLeod, 1822; 1846). Such circumstances were visualised with great impact by Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix’s Shipwreck of Juan Duan, as well as Turner’s Wreck OF The Transport Ship. The Romantic essence of the Raft of the Medusa, Turner’s The Shipwreck and Delacroix’s Barque of Dante is that, in compositional terms, we become the sufferers and they become us as “… the canvas unlooses in us deeper submarinous emotions, can shift us through currents of hope and despair elation panic and resignation.” (Barnes, 1989). Romantic art is thus a two-way process. The spectator is no longer a voyeur but an active participant. Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa is “…a composition designed for direct emotional participation.” (Eitner,  1983).

Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa is a landmark in the history of art and a seminal work in the Romantic movement. It ended one tradition and became the beginning of another — just as with his Barque of Dante Delacroix “… stepped at once into his place in the new movement which first Gros and then Gericault inaugurated.” (Wellington, 1999). and at the same time “… Delacroix became like Gericault a supreme master of the art of despair.” (Wilson-Smith, 1992). With his Raft of the Medusa Gericault transformed a governmentally tabooed scandal into a composition that surpassed reportage and genre (Wolf, 1999). Similarly Turner with The Shipwreck had earlier challenged the academic taboos of the Neo-classically orientated Royal Academy.

The viewing public were compelled by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Basque of Dante, and Turner’s The Shipwreck, the Wreck of a Transport Ship to consider their attitudes to the human problems of suffering hope and heroism. In this vein it was Gericault who, through the Raft of the Medusa, “… raised the plight of the shipwrecked to a level of universal significance…” (Honour, 1991). However, Delacroix’s passion, sense of the intrinsic value of colour and compositional methods, rendered him a Romantic in a category of his own (Wolf, 1999), and this “…singular isolation of Delacroix…” makes him “… not only a great Romantic painter…” but “…the only truly Romantic painter that France ever produced.” (Brookner, 1997b). It is not really surprising that artists such as Turner, Gericault and Delacroix, not to mention the Dutch marine artists. should all come from great maritime nations. The image of shipwreck was a means to invoke emotional responses in their spectators – an tragic theme that touched at the heap strings when loss at sea due to war, exploration, and expanding trade was at the forefront of both state, public and personal concern. The Romantic, even symbolic concept of the boat epitomised life’s journey — a voyage surrounded by despair and boiling seas of adversity, but one where hope and heroism still held out the end or rescue and salvation. The shipwrecks of Turner, Gericault, and Delacroix were not just tragic depictions of loss at sea — they were also their opposite in the sense they were also beacons, even lighthouses, in the history of Romantic art and the emotional involvement of the spectator in the drama of Romantic art can be understood terms of catharsis — the release of emotions through drama or art, a purgation of feelings by tragedy. The paradox and seeming contradictions of Romanticism can be understood by its search for harmony whereby the negatives of hopelessness and despair are resolved, harmonised, by the prospect of hope and human effort in the face of the forces of nature. The Romantics were beginning to explore in art, without realising it, what became known later in the le century as anomie and alienation. The idea of anomie refers to several aspects of social participation where the conditions necessary for man to fulfil himself and attain happiness were not present, and alienation to the estrangement of the individual from key aspects of his or her social existence.

Originally the Summer Dissertation for the University of Oxford Certificate in Art History, 28.9.1999.

All illustrations are found in the public domain.

7.0 References

Barnes, J. (1989). A History of the World in 10 Chapters. Jonathan Cape, London.

Baudelaire, C (1821). Fleurs do Mal. Oeuvres. Edition de la Pleiade, Paris.

Bockemuhl, M. (1993). Rembrandt. Taschen, Cologne.

Bordenove, G. (1973). Le Naufrage de la Meduse. R. Laffont, Paris. [Bod = Maison Francais, Main Library, HGXIX 100].

Brookner, A. (1997a). Gerrticault in Soundings. Harvill Press, London.

Brookner, A. (1997b). Delacroix in Soundings. Harvill Press, London.

Butler, M & Joll, E. (1984). The Paintings of J. M. W. Turner (Revised edition). Yale UP.

Charlemont, Lady Egle. (1867). Revue de Paris, 20.1.1867.

Chilvers, I & H. Osborne (eds). (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. OUP, Oxford.

Clark, K, (1973). The Romantic Rebellion. John Murray, London.

Correard, A et Savigny, J.B.H. (1821). Naufrage de la Fregate la Meduse. 3rd edition, Paris.

Correard, A. (1821). Naufrage de la Fregate la Meduse. 4th edition, Paris.

Dante, A. (1976). Inferno. Illustrated by Gustave Dore. Paddington Press, London.

Mats, Journal dt(1816). Paris. First and unauthorised account by Savigny of the ordeal of the survivors on the raft.

Delacroix, E. (1999). Journal. H. Wellington (ed). Phaidon, London.

Deslandres, Y. (1963). Delacriox: a pictorial biography. Thames & Hudson, London.

Edinburgh Review, (1818). October, Volume 30.

Eichner, H. (1972). Romantic and its Cognates: The European History of a Word Toronto

Eitner, L. (1972). The Raft of the Medusa. London & New York. [Bod = 17003 c 210]

Eitner, L. (1983). Gericault His Life and Work. Orbis, London.

Finberg, A.J. (1967). The Life of J. M. W. Turner. 2nd edition. OUP, Oxford

Fischer, E. (1963). The Necessity of Art. Pelican, London.

Gaunt, W. (1992), Turner. Phaidon London.

Honour, H. (1991). Romanticism. Pelican, London.

Huyghe, R. (1963). Delacroix. Thames& Hudson, London.

Jal, A. (1877). Souvenirs d’un homme de lettres. Pads. Jamot, P. (1928). Le Romanticisme et l’Art. Paris.

Joannides, P. (1975). The Literature of Art, The Raft of the Medusa. Burlington Magazine, CVII, March.

Lawrence, A.W. (1931). The Wreck of the Medusa. London.

Leeuw, R de. (1996). The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. Allen Lane, London. Lindsay, J. (1966). Turner, his life and work. Harper Row, New York.

Macarthur, D.W. (1938). They sailed for Senegal, an historical novel. F.A. Stokes & Co, New York. [Bod = Nuneham 2542 e 2243].

McLeod, H. (1822). The Shipwreck of the Alceste, an English frigate, in the Straits of Gaspar; also, the Shipreck of the Medusa, a French frigate, on the coast of Africa; with observations and reflections thereon. Dublin. [Bod = Douce Adds 220]. H. McLeod was the surgeon aboard the Alceste.

McLeod, H. (1846). The Shipwreck of the Alceste, an English frigate, in the Straits of Gaspar; also, the shipwreck of the Medusa, a French frigate, on the coast of Africa; with observations and reflections thereon. J. Smyth, Belfast. [Bod = Harding A 755]. H. McLeod was surgeon aboard the Alceste.

McKee, A. (1975). Death Raft, the human drama of the Medusa shipwreck. Souvenir Press, London.

Moncrieff, W.T. (1830). Shipwreck of the Medusa; or, The Fatal Raft! A drama in three acts. Richardson, T. London. Embellished with a fine engraving ‘Shipwreck of the Medusa’ by G. Armstrong, from a drawing taken in the Royal Coburg Theatre by Mr Seymour. [Bod = Harding D 23330 (7)].

Moniteur Universe! (1816). Paris. 10.9.1816.

Musset, A de (1836). La Confession d’un enfant de siecle. In: Oeuvres Completes en prose. Paris, 1960.

Neret, G. (1999). Delacroix. Taschen, Cologne.

Praviel, A. (1934). Le Radeau de la Mouse. Paris.

Price, U, (1794). An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the beautiful.

Read, H. (1994). Dictionary of Art and Artists. Thames & Hudson, London.

Rosenthal, D.A. (1980). Gericault’s Expenses for The Raft of the Medusa. Art Bulletin xi December

Ruskin, J. (1856). Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House. Smith. Elder & London.

Savigny, J.B.H. et A. Correard. (1817). Naufrage de la fregate la Medusa, farsant padre de l’expedition du Senegal, en 1816. Paris. [Bod = 23134 e 39].

Savigny, J.B.H  and A. Correard. (1818). Narrative of a voyage to Senegal in 1816 undertaken by order of the French Government, comprising an account of the shipwreck of the Medusa, the suffering of the crew etc… Colburn, H. London. [Bod = M144(1) BS].

Savigny, J.B. (1818). Observations sur 143.9 Effets de la faim et de la soif eprouves apres le naufrage de la frigate du Roi la Meduse en 1816. Didot, Paris. Published doctoral thesis submitted to Faculty of Medicine, 26.5.1818.

Savigny, J.B.H. et A. Correard, (1988). Naufrage de la Meduse. Dawsons, London.

Silvestre, T. (1878). Les Artistes francais, etudes d’apres nature. Paris.

Stevenson, R.L. (1903). Familiar Studies of Men and Books. Chatto & Widus, London. Times, The (1816). Translation of Savigny’s account in the Journal des Debats, Paris.

Tonnele, J. (1965). Le Naufrage de la Meduse. Revue Historique du Mus4 de l’Armge. (1). February.

Torieux, F.R. de (1829). Histoire de Romanticisme en France. Paris.

Upstone, R. (1993). Sketchbooks of the Romantics. London.

Vaughan, W. (1994). Romanticism and Art. Thames & Hudson, London.

Vaughan, W. (1999). British Painting the golden age. Thames & Hudson, London

Walker, J. (1989). Turner. Thames & Hudson, London.

Wilson-Smith, T. (1992). Delacroix: a life. Constable, London.

Wolf, N. (1999). Painting of the Romantieeni. Taschert, Cologne.




1 Comment

Filed under History Of Art

One response to “Shipwrecks in Romantic Art

  1. Dan Luxton

    Do you know where the original of Marcello’s drawing of La Peste di Firenze is held? Who is Marcello. Was it painted in 1348, or by a more modern painter who made 1348 part of the title?
    Thanks, Dan

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s