Raft of the Medusa

Object Number: 
ca. 1830
Oil on linen
Overall: 51 3/8 x 77 1/4 x 1 3/8 in. ( 130.5 x 196.2 x 3.5 cm )
Verso of PR strainer member, 5 in. from top: "166"
Illegible inscription on pressure sensitive tape running vertically on verso of PR member, 6 - 11 in. Oval stamp, printed twice, on PR verso of canvas, about 26 in. from top: "...[illeg] Chamon (?) [illeg]...
Gallery Label: 
This painting is a reduction of Théodore Géricault's massive The Raft of the Medusa (1819, Musée du Louvre, 16.1 x 23.5 feet). Considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the nineteenth century, the Raft was inspired by a political scandal in Restoration France and has always been viewed as a powerful argument for human rights. The painting told the story of the Medusa, a French royal flagship that went aground off the coast of Africa in 1816. About one hundred fifty passengers and crew were forced onto a makeshift raft by the captain and officers, where they would suffer every kind of horror –hunger, thirst, mutiny, murder, insanity, suicide and cannibalism. After thirteen days at sea only fifteen survivors were rescued by the British brig, Argus. Géricault's painting depicts the survivors struggling to signal this ship. The survivors’ stories exposed the corruption of Louis XVIII’s government – the appointment as captain of a member of the Ancien Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years, was generally considered to be the cause of the disaster. Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862), the donor of the New-York Historical Society’s copy of the Raft, was an individual whose personal values and life experiences prepared him to appreciate the work on a number of levels. Born in Philadelphia, Levy took to sea while still an adolescent, and early on was himself shipwrecked – he and his crewmates spent five days in a crowded, open boat, adrift in the Caribbean. During the War of 1812 Levy served onboard an American brig, also named Argus – a common ship’s name taken from the hundred-eyed, never sleeping, guard of the Greek goddess, Hera. The heroic vessel was sunk by the British, and later in life Levy would proudly describe himself as the “last surviving wardroom officer of the Argus.” As a champion of human rights, Levy is best remembered for his successful campaign to abolish flogging in the U. S. Navy. His commitment to equal rights was also a defining characteristic. As one of the most prominent American Jews ever to have served in the United States government, Levy was proud of his heritage, vigorously rebuking any perceived anti-Semitic slights. Unfortunately, these came often while Levy served in America's fledgling navy. A Francophile, Levy traveled to Paris in 1832 to commission David d’Angers’ (French, 1788-1856) statue of his lifelong hero, Thomas Jefferson (1832-33), which he donated to the United States Capitol in bronze, and New York City Hall in plaster. As a result of this commission, Levy also earned the title of America’s first historic preservationist when, through the instigation of his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, he purchased Jefferson’s home, Monticello around 1834-36, and subsequently restored it. Monticello was to remain the Levy family home until 1923. A Rediscovery for New York The attribution of the Historical Society’s copy of the Raft to the American artist George Cooke has recently received strong support from University of Delaware Professor of Art History Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer. Cooke is documented as having executed a highly publicized full-scale copy of the Raft (after 1830, now lost), which he toured throughout the United States. Professor Kallmyer has shown that not only would Levy have been aware of this copy, but also that he and Cooke spent a significant amount of time in Paris concurrently. Cooke further spent time visiting and drawing at Monticello in August 1834. Professor Kallmyer’s rediscovery led to a two-year conservation treatment of the Historical Society’s copy at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation by students Cynthia Schwarz, Lauren Cox, Sharra Grow, Sarah Kleiner, Laura Hartman, and Christine McIntyre under the supervision of Professors Joyce Hill Stoner, Richard Wolbers, Brian Baade, and Mary McGinn. Technical analysis conducted during the treatment process has shown all materials of the painting to be typical of the mid-1800s. Further examination revealed the probable stamp of a Parisian bookbinder / paper seller on the back of the canvas, suggesting the painting's origins to be in France. However, an analysis of the painting technique has shown that the Historical Society’s copy was constructed in a shorthand technique unusual for a direct copy created following typical French academic painting methods. This supports Professor Kallmyer's theory that the Historical Society’s reduction was itself replicated by Cooke, for Levy, after his own full-scale copy.
Credit Line: 
Bequest of Uriah Phillips Levy
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group