Wandering the endless halls of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) at the beginning of the semester, I stumbled across Théodore Géricault’s Shipwrecked on a Beach (The Tempest) (1823). I almost walked past it, as the canvas was so small compared to the others in the room. But boy, am I glad I stopped.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Salon, an annual juried exhibition, controlled the Parisian art scene. Salons rejected pieces that did not follow their strict guidelines, stipulating what could be depicted and how. But many artists, like Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, felt trapped by the Salons and rebelled against the institution. They argued that art is not created by following the rules, but by breaking them. Their defiance took many forms, from casual nudity, such as Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, to adopting new genres, like Realism and Romanticism. Courbet, the leader of the Realism movement, even opened a Pavilion of Realism where he could display his works that the Salon had rejected.
Géricault shocked the 1819 Paris Salon with his Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), a larger-than-life canvas depicting the remains of a vessel, the frigate Méduse, and the dead and dying aboard. The shipwreck was a real event and, more crucially, an embarrassment for the French. The inexperienced Vicomte de Chaumareys captained the ship, leading it off course and eventually crashing off the coast of Mauritania. The inadequate lifeboat capacity was filled by de Chaumareys and his crew, leaving more than 100 people to make a raft out of the ship’s remains. Rations on the raft quickly ran out, leaving those aboard to resort to cannibalism. After less than two weeks adrift, only 15 survived. Raft of the Medusa proved influential to younger artists, including a young Eugène Delacroix, who posed as one of the dying people in the painting. Géricault’s entry to the Salon — a depiction of a contemporary catastrophe — departed from the traditional heroic themes and solid forms of Neoclassicism and rocked against the bourgeoisie idealism of Rococo.
Like many of Géricault’s later works, Shipwrecked on a Beach is much smaller than Raft of the Medusa and features much larger, looser brushstrokes. In fact, the brushstrokes in the work are so loose that they feel almost impressionistic. The viewer has to take more time to see the image as a whole because the brushstrokes abstract the scene. A shipwrecked man on a rocky beach during a storm comes into focus when viewed at the right distance. Once the viewer understands the narrative, they feel pity for the man’s situation, fear for his well being, and anger — he did not deserve to be shipwrecked like this. The viewer’s emotions mirror those of the shipwrecked man: at first, he doesn’t understand where he is, and then he is overcome with grief.
A wave breaks on a rock next to the man in the scene, its whitecap contrasting with the rest of the dimly lit canvas. Although the dark, crashing wave shows the strength and ferocity of the storm, this lighter shade of the whitecap almost creates a sense of warmth. The whitecap is among the only well-lit details of the work and is what initially draws the eye of the viewer. Darker pigments — like the ones used for the rocks on the shores of the beach and the sea on the horizon — are indicative of mystery. The man is afraid to venture inland but is also hesitant to go back to sea. Why should he trust the water again? While the sea holds a fear the man has already experienced, he has not yet explored this new land. It could be the key to finding civilization, but it could also hold even more misfortune. The man is drawn to the shore as this is all he can see. In this way, it is what is familiar to him. He believes himself to be safe on the coast, but if he stays on the shore, the waves will crash upon him. The man is stuck.
The man stares back at the sea. The rough brushstrokes obscure his exact expression, but Géricault conveys a sense of longing through the figure’s leaning body. Most likely, the man has spent a long time at sea; he has befriended the waters. Finding himself a castaway, he realizes the sea has betrayed him. What was once a venue of passage has become a barrier. As he watches the waves, he yearns for something — but for what? Perhaps he longs for home, wishing he could hang his hat one more time. Maybe he wishes he had a chance to say goodbye to his wife and kids. He might be asking for forgiveness, from the sea and from God. What transgressions has he committed to be abandoned (by society, but also by his surroundings and by his faith)? Time passes and the storm recedes. The ocean apologizes. The man continues to watch the waves come to shore. Their steady pace calms him as he begins to think of a way home.
The French title of the painting, Naufragés, meaning castaways, implies there is more than one shipwrecked person. After hours of looking at the canvas, I found myself only seeing the one figure. Where is the second man? Was I not looking in the right places? Is he Géricault? Géricault is known for depicting stressful, emotional scenes, from defeated soldiers (like his The Wounded Cuirassier) to various studies of severed limbs straight from the morgue (such as Anatomical Pieces). Toward the end of his life, he was in great pain, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps the depressed Géricault felt just as hopeless as the man he painted.
When I see this piece, I see myself. Maybe I am the second naufragé in the painting. Perhaps the confusion of the viewer mirrors the confusion of the man in the painting because the viewer is tending to their own set of hardships along with the man in the canvas.
Keeping a nose to the paint can bring out the finer details of some paintings, but not Shipwrecked. Looking closely only brings blurriness and confusion. To see the scene for what it is, we must step back and view it from a distance. We must evaluate the situation as a whole to find the clarity needed to fix the problem.
I like to believe the man on the shore will come to eventually accept his situation. He knows either path he chooses — inland or back to sea — will bring him more suffering. With enough exploring, however, he may come to find safety. The only option that will extend his misery indefinitely is staying on the shore. He can sit on the beach feeling sorry for himself while the waves crash against him, or he can channel his despair into something productive and get back to his life. When life is testing us, I think we have to push inland or out to sea. There is no reason to stay put.