The sea, shipwreck and the sublime
To contextualise this case study it is first important to remember what a prominent and consistent role the sea has played in critical and theoretical discussions of the sublime. Indeed, throughout the history of the sublime, to quote the writer Barbara Freeman, ‘the sea has often served as its most appropriate, if not exemplary, metaphor’.4 For the anonymous author known as Pseudo-Longinus, who wrote the first-known treatise on the subject, the ocean’s majesty of scale and thus its sublimity were self-evident:
Hence it is almost an instinct that we follow in giving our admiration, not to small streams, though they be pellucid and useful, but to the Nile and Danube, or Rhine, and far more to the Ocean.5
It was equally self-evident to the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was arguably the best known and most paraphrased (if not the most widely read) treatise on the sublime in Britain. In his oft-quoted summation of the sublime, Burke juxtaposes his key concept of terror with the vastness of the sea:
No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain and death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror, be endured with greatness of dimensions or not ... And to things of great dimension, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.6
He later concludes that, ‘These waters must be troubled before they can exert their virtues’, thus suggesting the added value of storm, as opposed to calm, for powerful effect.7 While Burke and other commentators acknowledged the power of nature, they also acknowledged that it had its limits when confronted by the unmodified power of God. In A Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job (1749), the poet Edward Young ‘quoted’ from God’s speech from the whirlwind, then appreciated as a paradigm of sublimity, in which God describes the experience of being the creator of the world, with particular reference to the ocean:
Who, stretching forth his sceptre o’er the deep,
Can that wide world in due subjection keep?
I broke the globe, I scoop’d its hollow side,
And did a bason for the floods provide;
I chain’d them with my word; the boiling sea,
Work’d up in tempests, hears My great decree;
‘Thus far thy floating tide shall be convey’d;
And here, O main! be thy proud billows stay’d.’
‘There is a very great air in all that precedes’, Young writes in response, ‘but this [excerpt] is signally sublime. We are struck with admiration to see the vast and ungovernable ocean receiving commands, and punctually obeying them; to find it like a manage-horse, raging, tossing, and foaming, but by the rule and direction of its master.’8 The ocean was, in Young’s estimation at least, the pre-eminent example via which the supremacy of God over nature could be evoked.
In his book Shipwreck with Spectator, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg explains mankind’s time-honoured fascination and unease with the sea and seafaring as follows:
Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage. The repertory of this nautical metaphorics of existence is very rich.9
In this context, the appropriateness of the storm-tossed ship as a political and social metaphor, from the Roman poet Horace’s ‘ship of state’ analogy onwards, needs no further explanation. And perhaps one can say with equal confidence that for obvious reasons a shipwreck was an event eminently suited to a sublime treatment. However, the relationship between shipwreck and the sublime needs to be seen in the context of the spectacle-spectatorship dynamic, just as the undoubted impact of a shipwreck needs to be recognised as first and foremost a historical event and human tragedy, even when it was presented, marketed and thus exploited as a consumer product.10
What was the relationship between the sublime – a complex and often contested term in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – and the role of spectatorship? For many commentators, the sublime was premised on the contemplation of powerful scenes or objects that aroused strong feelings of awe and terror in the spectator, primarily but not exclusively of natural phenomena (hence the centrality of the sea as a subject, and by association shipwreck). Thus the writer Joseph Addison, in his influential essay ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712), after listing the examples of ‘high rocks and precipices’, ‘a wide expanse of water’ and ‘huge heaps of mountains’, states that:
Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them.11
What is immediately apparent from Addison’s comments is that the viewer is not in any actual and immediate danger; there is a distance between the spectator and the scene or object, such that they are caught up sufficiently to feel overwhelmed but from a position of safety. Furthermore, there is pleasure in the process, as the writer and lexiographer Samuel Johnson put it, in the context of sublime language, from ‘sudden astonishment’ to ‘rational imagination’, when the mind relaxes in relief, precipitating what Addison had previously called ‘pleasing astonishment’ and Burke, ‘delightful horror’.12 The ‘sublime’ event is thus, by its very nature, a spectacle and the experience of that event a ‘spectator sport’. Evidently there is an important distinction to be made between ‘the object’ and ‘the subject’. Writing in the mid-1990s, the historian Jonathan Lamb noted the inappropriate use, as he saw it, of the term ‘sublime’ among some art historians. ‘Despite the frequent assertion to the contrary,’ he writes, ‘by eighteenth-century landscape specialists, there is no sublime environment, no phenomenon in nature that can claim an intrinsic part in these intensities, or pretend to be a cause or end of them’.13 The ‘crisis’, he asserts, must be within the subject (that is in the mind of the spectator). Lamb illustrates his point by quoting from Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790):
Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime ... All we can say is that the object lends itself to presentation of a sublimity discoverable in the mind. For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form.14
On these terms, we can perhaps appreciate the difficulty for artists and poets in manufacturing a sublime reaction in the spectator. Indeed, if the spectacle is to be persuasive, there is a crucial stage during the process of composing a ‘sublime’ work. The primary preoccupation of artists and poets in presenting shipwreck subjects is the attempt to immerse or transport the viewer out of their own time and space and into the description or composition. In Johann Joachim Ewald’s epigram (1755), entitled Der Sturm, the poet’s description ofthe distressed ship is clearly calculated to absorb the reader to such an extent that, when the textual flow is interrupted with the narrator’s presence – that is, with the introduction of ‘I’ – it effects an abrupt and thus powerful change of gear, what the critic Hans Blumenthal has called the ‘punchline’:
Suddenly it grows dark, the wind is howling loud,
And heaven, sky, and land appear a frightful jumble.
Toward the stars flies up the ship, then plunges down again,
Sails on washed by waves, with naught but ruin all around,
Here lightening, there thunder, the whole ether storming,
Swell towering up on swell, and cloud on cloud,
The ship is shattered, and I...nothing happened to me,
Because I only watched the storm from shore.15
That this sensation was crucial to experiencing The Raft of the Medusa is underlined by the lowering of the painting during the Paris Salon of 1819 at the request of Géricault himself, from a prominent but high position in the Salon Carré to one that encouraged a more intimate engagement with the canvas. Commenting on this significant change of hanging height, the painter Eugène Delacroix noted that, with the new position, the viewer’s foot was already in the water, concluding ‘Il faut l’avoir vu d’assez près, pour en sentir tout le mérite’ (it is necessary to have seen it close enough, to feel all its merits).16 That Géricault was not the first in this context to appreciate the optimum height from which to view a work of art is underlined by The Wreck of the Centaur by James Northcote, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784. Although the painting is now lost, its scale (3656 x 2438 mm) and composition is known through an engraving by Thomas Gaugain (fig.4), published in the same year, and its prominent hanging position in the Great Room at Somerset House via a watercolour by Edward Frances Burney (fig.5). The ominous presence of the ship, just visible in the top left corner, and the steep, upward tilt of the boat, when viewed from below (as Burney’s watercolour demonstrates) was surely calculated to exaggerate the sensation of being in the line of impact, from the path of the ship, the boat and the crashing waves.
Of course the sheer scale of the Raft of the Medusa (at seven metres long and five metres high), and of the over life-size figures represented, make the representation of human suffering more legible and thus more immediate and effective than in most marine painting or seascapes. After all, we can see the physical and emotional distress of the shipwrecked in Géricault’s composition, and Northcote’s, but this is miniaturised in Turner’s, and obscured in Vernet’s. As spectators, therefore, can we be absorbed with the human context of an event or scene, if we are distanced from the presence of human beings?
The relative merits of figurative and landscape formats in the spectacle-spectator configuration is perhaps most interesting and pressing in the context of sublime when we consider Edmund Burke’s emphasis in the Philosophical Enquiry on ‘pain’, ‘anguish’, ‘torment’ and ‘death’ as ‘productive of the sublime’, exciting the ‘passion’ of ‘self-preservation’:
The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime. The passions belonging to self-preservation are the strongest of all the passions.17
In general terms, the fact that it is a subject that encourages the spectator to imagine ‘pain and danger’ and ‘self-preservation’, ‘without being actually in such circumstances’ may well be why shipwreck, as a potentially life-threatening event, was suited to the sublime in all its various literary and artistic manifestations, and why it was so regularly adopted by artists planning works for public consumption. Interestingly, when the Raft of the Medusa was exhibited to visitors at the Egyptian Hall in London, the printed description made available was prefaced by an excerpt from ‘The Voyage’, from Robert Southey’s poem Madoc (1805), which explicitly evokes the spectacle-spectator dynamic described above, demonstrating the absorption of Burkean and other theoretical formulations of the sublime into the mainstream of British culture:
‘Tis pleasant, by the cheerful hearth, to hear
Of tempests and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo terror to delight us; ... but to hear
The roaring of the raging elements, ...
To know all human skill, all human strength,
Avail not, ... to look round, and only see
The mountain wave incumbent with its weight
Of bursting waters o’er the reeling bark, ...
O God, this is indeed a dreadful thing!
And he who hath endur’d the horror, once,
Of such an hour, doth never hear the storm
Howl round his home, but he remembers it,
And thinks upon the suffering mariner!18
Claude Joseph Vernet
A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea 1773
National Gallery, London
Photo © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence 2012
Claude Joseph Vernet
A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea 1773
Oil on canvas
1145 x 1635 mm
National Gallery, London
Photo © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence 2012
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Shipwreck exhibited 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner1775–1851
The Shipwreck exhibited 1805
Oil paint on canvas
support: 1705 x 2416 mm; frame: 2085 x 2795 x 235 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote
The Wreck of the Centaur 1796
Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote
The Wreck of the Centaur 1796
517 x 625 mm
Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Edward Francis Burney
West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts
© Trustees of the British Museum
Edward Francis Burney
West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts
Watercolour and pencil on paper
335 x 492 mm
© Trustees of the British Museum
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 ASeastorm (1752) and A Storm with a Shipwreck in 1754, see Figure 1.
Figure 1. A 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).
Figure 2. The 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 3. Slavers 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 7. Moonrise 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 8. Abbey 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
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
Figure 10. Old 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.
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
Figure 13. Peace – 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 15. The 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 16. Massacre at Chios (1824).
Figure 17. Death 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 ofMissolonghi (1826), see Figure 19, with its despairing symbolic gesture of a surrendering woman so indicative of a Byronic image.
Figure 18. Liberty 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 20. The 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, LaLoire (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’scaptain, 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 Medusaitself (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 Medusaand 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’scarpenter — 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.
Figure 21. Oil study of dissected limbs. Now in Musee Fabre, Montpellier.
Figure 22. Oil study of dissected limbs.
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 Encyclopaedias– complained 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).
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.
Figure 27. Fire 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).
Figure 28. Wreck 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, seeFigure 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 ficondite—de 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.