Art History from Below: Géricault, Delacroix, Turner

Sue Jones is a research student in the Birkbeck School of Arts. Here Sue reflects on ‘Art history from Below: Gericault, Delacroix, Turner:

Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, is renowned for his studies of the sea. In books such as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), The Many-Headed Hydra (2000 with Peter Linebaugh) and The Amistad Rebellion (2012) he has recovered the lives and struggles of those who lived and worked on the sea. Now, as Guest Curator in the JMW Turner gallery at Tate Britain, he is applying his method of ‘history from below’ to some of the greatest works of maritime art. He shared this work in progress with a packed audience at a lecture at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on 26 October.

The lecture, Art History from Below: Géricault, Delacroix, Turner, focussed on three well-known nineteenth century works of art: Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) and Turner’s A Disaster at Sea (c.1835). Each of these works depicts a real event – shipwreck, revolution and maritime disaster – which, in each case, called authority into question and raised complex issues of power and accountability. Rather than viewing these paintings solely as great art Professor Rediker, as he terms it, injects politics into art history by reading them as documents which have been produced by relations of power. By taking this approach, he recovers the struggle embedded within the art. He described how these artists sought to both reconstruct the social history of the events depicted whilst intervening in popular debates of the time around issues such as slavery, imperialism and governance.

All the artists discussed attempted to actively engage with survivors and witnesses to ensure that their experiences were reflected as accurately as possible, with Géricault employing Lavillette, a carpenter and one of the few survivors of the actual raft of the wrecked Méduse, to construct a detailed scale model of the raft which he could use for reference. Despite the attention to detail, these works were not exact reconstructions of events but artistic interpretations imbued with a power to move the onlooker. Professor Rediker’s work highlights the points at which the social history of those men and women at sea and on the streets – history from below – interacts with the social history of artistic imagination to produce works of immense power.

Tate Britain stands on the site of the old Millbank Prison from which prisoners – such as those killed in the wreck of the Amphitrite depicted in Turner’s A Disaster at Sea – were transported to Australia. As part of his work at Tate Britain, Professor Rediker will reconstruct the material of the convict trade, making those links explicit.

History happens at sea. Although recent years may have seen a decline in political and cultural focus on the maritime, this year the International Office of Migration reported the deaths of more than 11,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean since 2014. This lecture served to remind us that, though we turn our faces from the sea, maritime history from below is being written right now.

Sue Jones’ research title is The choice in themselves’: Pirates and the sea as a space of self-determination in early modern English literature, a project that asks how early modern seamen, particularly those who turned to piracy, viewed the sea as an element which shaped their lives. It considers how the lives of these men and women were represented in writings by themselves and by others. Sue is supervised by Professor Sue Wiseman,


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