The Wreck of the Medusa is a spellbinding account of the most famous shipwreck before the Titanic, a tragedy that riled a nation and inspired Théodore Géricault’s magnificent painting The Raft of the Medusa . In June 1816, the flagship of a French expedition to repossess a colony in Senegal from the British set sail. She never arrived at her destination; her incompetent captain Hugo de Chaumareys, ignoring telltale signs of shallow waters, plowed the ship into a famously treacherous sandbar. A privileged few claimed the lifeboats while 146 men and one woman were herded aboard a makeshift raft and set adrift. Without a compass or many provisions, hit by a vicious storm the first night, and exposed to sweltering heat during the following days, the group set upon each other: mayhem, mutiny, and murder ensued. When rescue arrived thirteen days later only fifteen were alive. Meanwhile, those in the boats who made it to shore undertook a dangerous two-hundred-mile slog through the desert. Among the handful of survivors from the raft were two men whose written account of the fiasco became a bestseller that rocked France’s political foundations and provided graphic fodder for Géricault’s world-famous painting.
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In June 1816 French frigate Medusa ran aground on a sandbar off the African coast. What followed—gross incompetence, murder and cannibalism—shocked European society and pushed the fragile, recently restored French monarchy to the brink. From the swirl of characters boiling around the story—admirals, ministers and kings—Miles (David Jones: The Maker Unmade) anchors his tale on Medusa survivor Alexandre Correard and painter Théodore Géricault. After surviving the wreck and subsequently drifting on a raft on which 133 of 147 died, Correard, an engineer fleeing the growing chaos in post-Napoleonic France, wrote a bestselling account of the tragedy and agitated for the monarchy's end. Revealed in the ensuing controversy was France's ongoing participation in the illegal trade of African slaves. With such great elements in place (flesh eating, palace intrigue and illicit love) this yarn has much promise. Unfortunately, while the story roars along with its own inherent momentum, Miles's prose is sometimes awkward ("Their union was obviously intense and, as with all true love, supremely precious. Catastrophically, it was to prove short-lived"). Nevertheless, the story of the wreck of the Medusa and the churning cultural machinations around it does make for a compelling read. (July)
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An iconic painting of the Romantic era, Le radeau de la Méduse, by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), immortalized a French maritime disaster in 1816. Unpacking the visual power of the image, author Miles proves to be both an astute art historian and a dramatic chronicler of the catastrophe. Several people survived to record accounts; these ignited a political scandal in France as the royalist captain's incompetence and callousness stoked criticism of the restored Bourbon monarchy. Sensing an opportunity, Géricault faced the challenge of determining what moment of the survival drama to depict, for survivors' accounts contained discrepancies. He decided to omit riot, murder, and cannibalism and to include elements condemning Louis XVIII's regime, such as the accusing, outstretched arm of survivor Alexandre Corréard. Since Corréard's story changed in successive editions, Miles is wary about Corréard's factual fidelity, lending historical depth to the narrative without detracting from Miles' insights into the suffering and betrayal provoked by Géricault's morbid masterpiece. Relating its popular reception, along with the subsequent lives of artist and subject, Miles crafts a captivating gem about art's relation to history. Taylor, Gilbert
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