Date of Creation:
Musée du Louvre
Musée du Louvre
Greece had been under occupation for nearly four centuries before revolting against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. Though many Greek towns and islands had joined the fight for freedom instantly, Chios showed reluctance to join the revolt.
Chios gained much prosperity through centuries of trade with the Empire, benefited by the Sultan and the Turkish government. Thoughts towards the revolt shifted after a troop of revolutionaries from another island came to Chios and encourages its inhabitants to participate. As news spread to the Sultan about a possible conspiracy against his Empire he turned against the island.
The Sultan sent a Turkish fleet to destroy the island and its locals and so began the massacre which included two weeks of murder, torture and rape. Villages were burned and churches were set alight. Almost 90,000 people were killed, 50,000 enslaved and 25,000 exiled.
The 2,000 remaining inhabitants survived by hiding in caves or leaving the island by sea. The Turkish completely destroyed Chios, leaving it completely burnt to the ground.
News of the massacre spread to Europe igniting many protests and inspiring artists to focus on this subject matter in their work. Volunteer groups sent money and weapons and some Westerners even joined the Greeks in their fight against the Ottomans.
In the Massacres at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery, Delacroix romanticizes the aftermath of the revolt. He exemplifies the haughty pride of the conquerors in contrast to the horror and despair of the innocent Greeks. He exhibited this painting at the 1824 Salon.
The theme of the painting is based on a real life event that had occurred two years prior to the completion of this work. For nearly four centuries the Greeks has been under occupation by the Turks but it wasn't until 1822 that the Greeks decided to fight for freedom.
The island of Chios had its own dealing with the Sultan, making their part in the revolt a particularly brutal and unfair attack. Chios joined the revolt later than the rest of Greece, and the Sultan finding out about their revolt conspiracy sent troops to kill, rape and enslave the inhabitants of the island.
The attack was so brutal, it left the island in burnt ruins and the majority of its citizen dead. Delacroix, both attracted to the dramatic and recording real life events, painted a romanticized version of the after-effects of the slaughter.
The figures of the dead create a strong horizontal bar across the center of the canvas. The eye is free to move across each catastrophe whether it be from the dying couple or the baby clinging to his dead mother.
Another group in the background struggles to protect their lives just subtle enough not to distract attention from the main focus of the piece.
The colors of the Massacres at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery are very close in tone. The majority of the canvas is covered in muted colors to evoke a somber mood. Occasional splashes of blood red and sky blue add emphasis and drama.
Use of light:
Delacroix always had an interesting approach to lighting. He tended to leave a majority of the canvas in a mysterious half shadow while illuminating certain figures. Two of the murderers, just to the left behind the pile of dead people, are hidden in a dark shadow. Their faces are not easy to make out.
The faces and bodies of the dead, on the other hand, are highlighted, emphasizing the turmoil and fright felt by the victims.
If one looks at the expressions of fear and despair on the faces of the inhabitants of Chios, it is clear that Delacroix wanted to show the shear brutality and injustice of this event. He was particularly fond of the genre of history painting and most likely hoped that this painting would help document such an unforgettable episode.
Delacroix uses a quick, blurred brushstroke, creating the impression of desolation. It seems unfathomable that such tragedy could actually be real life, as he paints the Massacre of Chios like an illusionary nightmare.
Delacroix's depiction of suffering caused some controversy among critics. The artist focused only on the disaster, while the canvas was void of glory or victory. The details of the infant clutching his dead mother's breast, although powerful, caused many to deem his work unfit.
Regardless of this reception, the government awarded Delacroix a medal and also purchased the painting. Still, the medal did not reflect the government's favorable agreement with the subject matter, but rather its acknowledgement of the artist's achievements. The Massacre of Chios, meant that Delacroix was now a rising star.
The response to the work was slightly more favorable after the artist's death but it didn't receive the credit it deserved until much later on.
Modern day reception:
Critics of today perceive Massacres at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery as a masterpiece and a universal work. They admire the Romantic historical painting and his courage to unabashedly show such a detailed encounter of such a recent tragedy.
The Death of Sardanapalus,1827:
Delacroix often painted themes of a violent, dramatic nature. Such destruction is seen not only in The Massacres at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery but also in The Death of Sardanapalus. Though the stories are different, in both canvases Delacroix explores his raw and unfiltered approach to recounting history.
Works by other artists:
Victor Hugo, also outraged by the unfair brutality of the Chios massacre wrote a poem entitled, "L'Enfant de Chios" which translates as, The Child of Chios.
Dante and Virgil in Hell just two years earlier at the Salon of 1822.
As this work was not commissioned, it is clear that Delacroix felt a personal duty to record the brutal attack on the Greeks by the Turks during the Greek war for independence.
He keeps the composition straightforward, and gets his point across through somber colors and striking use of light. His masterful brushwork gives the overall canvas a desolate, desperate feeling.
Known as a "master of color," Delacroix became a pupil of the English Romantic landscapists and extracted from their techniques, to develop a unique and memorable approach to color.
The impact of literature and both historical and contemporary events, coupled with his innate artistic technique created an explosive viewing experience on canvas, as seen in Massacres at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery.
Delacroix's work changed the art world forever and his technique had a lasting impact on the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements such as van Gogh and Cezanne.
Today, he is remembered as one of the world's most influential French Romantic painters and his expertise and genius is fully recognized and appreciated by modern day art critics.
The Battle of Taillebourg won by Saint Louis
The Naked Maja, Francisco Goya
Romanticism emphasizes the individual sense of self, creativity, imagination, and the value of art to make a statement. This emphasis on the individual is reflected in the ideas of self-realization through the act of contemplating nature.
There is the idea that the individual can only directly understand nature, free from society. Peace and salvation come through the individual rather than through political movements.
Romantic painters like Delacroix were part of a complex multimedia philosophical movement, involving the literary, visual, and intellectual arts.
Eugene Delacroix fine-tuned Romanticism, incorporating the influences of great masters such as Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens. He developed his own personal style, with an affinity for showing pain and suffering in his work through brightly colored canvases.
To find out more about Delacroix and his work please refer to the recommended reading list below.
• Bussy, Dorothy. Eugene Delacroix. BiblioBazaar, 2009
• Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. Phaidon Press Limited, 1995
• Jobert, Barthélémy. Delacroix. Princeton University Press, 1997
• Johnson, Dorothy. David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology (Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History). The University of North Carolina Press, 2011
• Johnson, Lee. Delacroix. New York Press, 1963
• Kauffman, Jean-Paul. Wrestling with the Angel: The Mystery of Delacroix's Mural. The Harvill Press, 2003
• Noon, Patrick, et al. Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism. Tate Publishing, 2003
• Prideaux, Tom. The World of Delacroix: 1798-1863. Time Life Education, 1966
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