My Favourite Painting: Julian Fellowes

'There is something about its energy and desperation that seems to howl from the canvas and I find it extraordinary and inspiring.'

The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, 16ft by 23½ft, by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), Louvre, Paris, France

Julian Fellowes chooses The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault:

‘It may seem odd for a painting of a raft carrying people, most of whom are dying or dead, to be seen as romantic, but it does have a vigorous, muscular romance that, at the time, threw off the limitations of the cool classicism of the Napoleonic era.

‘There is something about its energy and desperation that seems to howl from the canvas and I find it extraordinary and inspiring. Géricault was only 27 when he painted it, which is unbelievable, but I am sure the fact that his artistry and skill were informed by his youth is what makes the painting so vivid.’

The Lord Fellowes of West Stafford is an actor, novelist, film director and screenwriter, best known as the creator of Downton Abbey.

John McEwen comments on The Raft of the Medusa:

Romanticism has many definitions, but its core is a commitment to personal emotion. This pioneer Romantic picture passionately empathises with shipwreck survivors, ‘civilised’ citizens reduced to cannibalism. The picture shows the climactic moment, bodies arranged in an apex from death to life, when a ship promising salvation appears on the horizon.

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In June 1816, French frigate Medusa (Meduse) sailed from Rochefort with 400 aboard, heading a three-ship convoy on a diplomatic mission to Senegal, west Africa. Her captain, a vicomte, had not sailed for years and was a political appointment.

Due to poor navigation, Medusa ran aground on a sandbank 60 miles off the African coast. Denied space in six lifeboats, the captain-less remnant of the passengers, some 150 people, set sail on a raft of the ship’s timbers with one bag of biscuits, two casks of water and six casks of wine. When, after 13 days, unsuspecting sister-ship Argus rescued them, there were 15 survivors. The story was a scandal.

Géricault romantically and youthfully saw the painting as a do-or-die effort to establish his reputation.

As one art historian wrote: ‘Behind locked doors he threw himself into the work… dreaded and avoided.’ Research included morgue sketches and interviews with survivors, three of whom he portrayed in the picture.

In France, it did not prove Géricault’s hoped-for sensation, but, in London, 40,000 paying visitors saw it and it entered the Louvre soon after his death – which, like a true romantic’s, was before he was 40.

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