The Raft of the Medusa depicted the helpless passengers and crew of the French ship Medusa. When the ship was wrecked near Senegal in July 1816, they were placed aboard a raft and cut adrift by the captain. At the time of their rescue only 15 of the 149 passengers and crew members were still alive.
It was Géricault's concept to make this sordid contemporary tragedy into something monumental and heroic. He made an intensive study of the disaster - he depicted the occupants of the raft just as they sighted the rescue ship on the horizon - which included acts of cannibalism and mutiny. Géricault even interviewed some of the survivors and had the carpenter of the Medusa build a model of the raft and set it up in his studio. He then made numerous studies and an oil sketch before beginning the actual painting. For the composition and for the poses of the men and women on the raft, Géricault ransacked the art of the past, from Raphael and Michaelangelo - whose influence is extremely strong in the figure types and gestures - to the work of his immediate forerunners.
The result of all this study was grand in both scale and conception. The large canvas (16 by 23 feet) with its twisting figures and tilting diagonals, was shown at the Academy in 1819. Though it was titled simply Shipwreck all the visitors knew its real subject.
Critics either condemned or praised it depending on their political rather than their artistic leanings. Disappointed by the lack of artistic appreciation, Géricault lapsed into depression. But in 1820, Gericault took this huge canvas to London where it met with considerable success in exhibitions.