An agitated young man with a recently shaven skull and piercing eyes emerged through a monumental portico that fronted the hospital and turned into the chilly shadow of the street. Hitherto unfocused, in this bitter winter of 1819 he had a newfound sense of determination, a resolve formed not a moment too soon: although only twenty-seven, this striking figure would, within the space of five years, be dead.
The street into which he turned was not busy. He had chosen to install himself in a working-class, northwestern suburb of Paris, close to the Beaujon hospital and away from society’s babble. The district was scarred, as was every part of that damaged capital, by the bloodshed of a revolution turned vicious and, more recently, by the debris of an empire overthrown. A visiting English artist noted that there was “scarcely a driver of a fiacre, a waiter at a café, or a man in middle life, who had not been in battle, served in a campaign, or been wounded by a shot.” Mutilation was commonplace.
Injured soldiers and amputees formed a macabre and lengthening procession that had dragged itself about the city since Napoleon’s first conquests. Twenty years on, there were hoards of these invalids, retired on half pay after 1814, rejected victims of the restored monarchy’s reduction of the once feared Grand Army. According to another English visitor, Paris was “a vast mourning family,” where “three people out of five that one meets are habited in black.” Its citizens after a quarter of a century had, once again, been made royal subjects and discord grumbled round the capital.
Although the muslin parcel that he hugged in his arms was proving cumbersome, the young man attempted to quicken his pace. From his razored appearance and from the dark red staining the gauze, it would seem that his trade was perhaps butcher or that his guilty secret was murder. The fabric was proving far from impermeable and he was obliged to reposition his load in order to prevent his coat from becoming bloodied.
If it seemed like madness to parade in broad daylight with a severed head clutched closely to one’s breast—and, indeed, neatly bound in the muslin sack was a human head that had, until recently, been attached to a living, breathing body—it was nothing to the folly of the world into which Théodore Gáricault had plunged. His new friend Alexandre Corréard had promised to call. He was an excitable person with strong convictions, a frankly litigious man with a recently acquired sense of self-importance. Corréard had been on board the Medusa. He had survived the infamous raft and had much privileged information to impart.
The severed head was already putrid, but the stench that greeted the young man as he climbed the stairs to his lodgings was emetic. It was fortunate that he was living an almost reclusive existence, for the stink was overpowering as he opened his front door and beheld the carnage. Surely the domain of a homicidal maniac, the space was ornamented with portions of death. Arranged lovingly, like delicacies on a small table, were the amputated arms and legs of some unfortunate individual. If Gáricault was no murderer, then surely he was a psychopath, a cannibal who had decided to feast upon the dead.
The sound of quick, purposeful steps could be heard on the stairs and the expected visitor, Corréard, burst into the room. He showed no sign of shock at the butchery, and neither did the reek of rotting flesh upset him. Corréard had, nigh on three years before, over a period of days while floating between life and death, eaten from the hacked-off limbs of dead companions. Since then, such sights had racked his dreams, but somehow, in the cold light of a winter’s day, these scraps, arranged for purposes of research, seemed acceptable. Over the past few weeks his host Gáricault had been living with putrefaction as fragments of bodies had decomposed all about him, helping the artist approach the horror precipitated by the wreck of the Medusa.
The flagship of a prestigious expedition to repossess the colony of Senegal, the Medusa had been driven onto a sandbank by its inept captain, a relic from the ancient régime, who had been appointed leader of the expedition not for any qualities of seamanship but in recompense for past political services. Corréard, as a member of that ill-fated expedition, had been the victim of an avoidable shipwreck and a selfishly misconceived rescue plan. Adding insult to injury, when Corréard had sought compensation, he had been spurned by an indifferent government. Outraged by its callousness, he had publicized his misfortune, writing The Shipwreck of the Frigate, the Medusa—a best seller—and was visiting this stinking room to elaborate certain visual details that were absent from his text. He was here to help create an image, to act as adviser to this disturbed young artist who was deep in a painting with which he sought to make his name.
So gripping was the indictment of the French leadership in Corréard’s book that it had been translated into English, German, and Dutch, with an Italian translation forthcoming. The work in its second French edition had become more politicized in scope and Corréard visited Gáricault not only to reconstruct specific details of his terrifying days on the raft, but also to elucidate the sinister state of affairs. His argument, to which his own misfortune bore witness, offered a scathing appraisal of the Bourbon restoration, which, he claimed, was intent on betraying the positive gains of nearly three decades of French political struggle.
Host and visitor began to talk, exploring the labyrinth of issues that led out from that supreme act of cowardice, the release and cutting of the ropes that were supposed to tow the raft of the Medusa to safety. One hundred forty-seven people had been herded onto this makeshift platform because of a shortage of lifeboats. Abandoned by the leaders of the expedition, who fled in order to save themselves, all but fifteen died on board.
Swept along by Corréard’s intense and penetrating diatribe, Gáricault listened attentively. Gáricault had begun to look about, in the streets and in the press, for something to excite his desire for relevance. He had come back early to Paris from his Italian painting trip, not with the usual copies of Michelangelo but with scenes of carnival upheavals, executions, and a fistful of tortured erotic drawings. He had returned searching for the kind of story that smacked of the moment, for an incident that thrilled the readers of the popular press of the day, one of those lurid news items that reported wide-ranging infamies from criminal and sexual scandals to suicides, shipwrecks, and cannibalism.
Alexandre Corréard and Théodore Gáricault, meeting in the midst of this butchery, had both suffered devastating setbacks, had scandals hounding them, had secrets to conceal and yet were determined to surmount misfortune. Corréard tireless in his struggles for retribution and justice; Gáricault tackling his ambitious canvas with a fervor and single-mindedness that could be gauged from the hideous array of decomposing flesh with which he chose to populate his studio. It was a temporary space; he had rented it to paint the raft. Hence the strewn limbs, the sketches of the successive outrages in the drama, the small model of the platform, which had been assembled for him by the ship’s carpenter, a man who had questioned aspects of Corréard’s account of their thirteen days adrift.
Catching sight of a bundle of studies for which he himself had posed, Corréard pondered them for a moment and then turned to confront the large canvas on which Gáricault had begun to work. He saw his own figure taking shape, center stage, in pride of place, the star of the nightmare.