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The Cover
December 3, 2003

Portrait Study

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(21):2776. doi:10.1001/jama.290.21.2776

Arguably one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century was The Raft of the Medusa, painted in 1818 by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and shown at the Paris Salon of 1819. Based on the catastrophic shipwreck of the French frigate Medusa that had occurred some three years earlier off the coast of Africa, the monumental work (nearly 400 square feet of oil-painted canvas) was hardly the success its 28-year-old artist had anticipated. On the contrary, it served only to polarize a country already divided between Napoleon and the Royalists. The often-heated discussions focused not on the work of art, but on the political fallout of the assigning of moral responsibility for the disastrous event: What responsibility did the French government (then the restored Bourbons) bear? Was the vessel seaworthy? What was the culpability of the captain (whose job had been obtained by royal patronage) for abandoning the crew of the sinking vessel to a barely floating raft? Little if anything was said about the genius of this young artist, nor was there much mention about the promise shown in this work. Deeply disappointed, Géricault took the painting to London the following year where he exhibited it on a subscription basis. More than 50 000 spectators paid to see it, but again, the gruesome scene overshadowed the art. Today, the distance of nearly two centuries permits the painting to be seen as not only one of the most politically provocative of the 19th century, but also as one of the greatest works of a century that would see many more.