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.
Owing to his refusal to follow procedures and take proper navigational advice, the Medusa foundered on a sandbank in notoriously dangerous and uncharted waters off the West African coast. The subsequent evacuation was a fiasco, and Chaumareys saved his own skin by cutting the towrope which linked his lifeboat to