A Tale of art and catastrophe joined seamlessly
THE NOVELIST MAY ask herself, “What historical painting is worth crafting a novel around.”
One celebrated author chose Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a pint-sized portrait painting done in 1665. The result for author Tracy Chevalier was a 1999 international bestseller. The novel, bearing the same name, pivoted on Vermeer’s longings for the innocent, sixteen-year-old model who, for us, has been immortalized.
As an historical event, however, this is fairly warm pudding (or thin gruel?) It is a psychological drama in a lush period settings, seventeenth-century Delft, Holland.
As a polar opposite, a novel might have been written about Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1635). Here’s drama, to be sure, the victory of Spain’s most famous general over his counterpart in the Netherlands. It’s a favorite for academic books (with the painting usually on the cover), but it has spawned no fictional treatment.
Let’s cut to the chase: the only big art, big history novel in memory is Australian author Arabella Edge’s The God of Spring (2005). She makes a big painting a big window onto a full-blown, horrific, human drama.
This is the well-imagined story of how the French artist Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault painted his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa (1819). He painted it as the political events still were unfolding, making art and event simultaneous. And it offered this novelist the delicious challenge of structuring such a real-time tale.
The Medusa maritime catastrophe is well known.
In summer of 1816, a French frigate, the Medusa, ran aground with its four hundred passengers. It was thirty miles off the West African coast. To lighten the ship, a raft was built for supplies. But in a gale, the frigate was breaking up, so most of the passengers filled the frigate's two large long boats, while 146 passengers were loaded onto the giant, rickety raft. The long boats pulled the raft, but when the odds became desperate, the raft was cut loose.
Over the next twelve days, the 146 desperate rafters reduced themselves to fifteen by suicide, murder, exposure, mercy killings (and some cannibalism).
The entire tragedy was due to leadership incompetence, followed by panic and a spiraling human depravity. Back in Paris, it will become a blame-game between the Royalist government—head of the navy—and the recently ousted Republicans.
In The God of Spring, we meet Géricault on his return from two unproductive months in Rome, where he’d not heard of the Medusa. He is presently having an affair with his old uncle’s younger wife, Alexandrine—indeed the uncle who has most supported his career as a portrait and history painter. Until now, Géricault has been doing mythological paintings using Alexandrine as a model. Some of these artworks are driven by the lust and guilt of their affair.
Aspiring to greatness, though, Géricault is in search of grand topic—like what he’s just heard regarding the Medusa.
The newspaper editor he visits is mum, being under pressure from the Royalists. But on leaving the office, Géricault is buttonholed by a young clerk. For a fee he leads the painter to two survivors, Savigny, the ship surgeon, and Corréard, an engineer. Géricault invites them to live at his family’s large estate.
With this set-piece in place, much of the middle of the novel is the tale told by the two guilt-ridden men (who in reality, did provide the first full account of the Medusa tragedy, published in 1818). As Géricault listens, he mulls and sketches. The story is so ignoble, however, that his two guests exclude many grim particulars. Every time truths dribble out, Géricault is forced to rethink his painting. He’d seen some gritty stuff in life: whoring at sixteen, burying dead bodies, and witnessing guillotine massacres. But “nothing had prepared him” for this.
The painter takes his project to feverish extremes. He builds a raft in his studio as a model. From the morgue he retrieves limbs of dead bodies to arrange for studies. Finally, the clerk leads him to a third survivor, Thomas, who ultimately divulges the worst—but also the climax, the day the rescue ship arrived. “All I possess in the world is my story,” Thomas reports. “The conflict did not reside with the ocean but festered on board the ship.”
For Géricault’s part, “A terrible, feverish thrill of anticipation began to course through him. His heart quickened at the thought that, finally, he might apprehend those fatal days on the raft.” Soon comes the turning point: the vision. “With a great welling of excitement, Géricault knew he had found his subject at last—the first sighting of the Argus” (the rescue ship).
Géricault’s obsession dooms his relationship with Alexandrine. She wants full attention, and for good reason. She is pregnant by the painter, and in the face of marital scandal, is soon off to the convent, lovers never to meet again. His heart torn, Géricault cannot stop, and the painting is brought to completion. Misfortune waits in the wings, however.
While fox hunting in England, he is thrown from a horse, damaging his back and starting a tumor that will take his life. Bedridden in Paris, he is visited by his student, Eugéne Delacroix (the next great Romantic history painter). Géricault envies his student’s youth and future, and laments that his own life has produced only five “good” paintings. He refuses the doctor’s painful treatments and dies in the rainy season—never again to see spring (a la the title, The God of Spring).
In this novel, the great painter expires in a brooding darkness that echoes the Medusa tale itself. What price, the novel seems to ask, for a harrowing masterpiece to be born? Quite different from Girl with a Pearl Earring, wouldn't you say?