When Hébert's painting debuted at the Paris Salon of 1850, it was immediately hailed at a masterpiece and awarded the contest's top prize. The critic Théophile Gautier described it as one of two paintings that defined the French nineteenth century, saying that where Théodore Géricault's painting, "Raft of the Medusa," defined a nation adrift in despair, Hébert's pointed towards hope. (Source: James Kerns. Théophile Gautier, Orator to the Artists. 2012.)
Inspired by events personally witnessed during his time in Italy, French Academic artist Antoine Auguste Ernest Hébert (1817-1908) depicts a family of Italian peasants escaping a malaria epidemic by raft. In vast areas throughout Italy, people were stricken with the disease. In the sullen composition - colour palette, body language, and the depiction of a desolate marsh landscape - Hébert has conveyed the melancholy and despair of a diseased people and their land. Yet, despite the crisis, migrants made their way to France as refugees establishing a new life.
This work, signed by Hébert, is one of three made by the artist in its original size and format after his success at the Salon. Of the four, the original hangs in the Musée d'Orsay, another is in the Musée Hebert (Paris), this was purchased in Belgium by Anthony's Fine Art, and the whereabouts of the fourth is unknown.
53 ¼ x 77 in.