Rupert Christiansen

A Shameful Episode

Medusa: The Shipwreck, The Scandal, The Masterpiece

By

Jonathan Cape 352pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

In The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault portrayed ‘the shipwreck of France’: Jonathan Miles’s absorbing and intelligent book takes up a theme first sounded by Jules Michelet over a hundred and fifty years ago. This is a work of art history in the broadest sense, with little to say about the painting’s aesthetic qualities but much fascinating information about the complexities of its political hinterland.

The Medusa was the flagship of an inept expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal from the British, part of a strategy through which the dismally corrupt and mediocre post-Napoleonic regime attempted a revival of national dignity. An antiquated frigate, typical of France’s depleted navy, it set sail in 1816 under the incompetent leadership of Hugues de Chaumareys, an émigré lackey of the ancien régime who hadn’t commanded a vessel for over twenty-five years. 

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