Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the Massacre at Chios

Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the Massacre at Chios; Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery, 1824, oil on canvas, 164″ × 139″ / 419 cm × 354 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We’re in one of the large painting galleries in the Louvre, in Paris, looking at a massive canvas by the French painter Delacroix. This is called “The Massacre at Chios.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] This is a contemporary subject, which is important because large paintings were generally reserved for subjects from history, from mythology.

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] Or religious painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] And yet, here we have a contemporary event. Not a heroic event. In fact, the opposite. An unrelenting scene of violence and indifference to suffering.

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] The story behind the painting was an attack by the Ottomans on the Greek island of Chios, where according to reports as many as 30,000 people were killed. Others were starved and many were enslaved. That’s precisely the story that Delacroix is telling here.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] In fact, at this time many Europeans went to fight for the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] From the French perspective at this moment, Greece was a representation of the great European tradition, whereas on the other side of the Bosphorus, we entered into the East. From the French perspective, that was a foreign land, a foreign culture, distant and exotic and dangerous.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] And Muslim. We have this frieze of suffering figures across the foreground, some fighting in the middle ground, and then this distant, very sketchily painted landscape in the background.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] Where we see towns being burned. Let’s spend a moment with the figures in the foreground. We see an Ottoman soldier on horseback. He looks back with disdain. He’s bound a nude woman to the horse.

[1:36] There’s another woman who seems to be holding her head with her right hand, but perhaps reaching up to the soldier, who in turn is reaching to grab the hilt of his sword.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] Look at the horse, how loosely painted he is, how wild he looks. While the male figure looks at these terribly suffering female figures with complete indifference and even disdain, I almost see a sense of conscience in the eye of the horse about the horror that’s being perpetrated.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Perhaps the white at the mouth shows the horse in such a fury that its mouth is foaming.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] If we move down below the figure on the horseback, we see perhaps the saddest scene of all, of a small child reaching for the breast of its dead mother.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] Look at the delicacy with which Delacroix has painted this pair. The child’s flesh is still pink. He’s alive, but her pallor is more blue. We can see those blue-green veins in her breast, in her neck, and in her temple. Her eyes are now completely vacant.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] Her dress has been pulled down. Her chest is bare. Her breasts are exposed. There’s a sense of indecency and horror at the people who would have done this to a woman.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] Just beside her head, an older woman sits who looks completely vulnerable. Then we have another grouping on the left side.

Dr. Harris: [2:47] Here we see a male nude whose eyes are similarly vacant and who’s wounded and bleeding. Yet there’s still something noble and beautiful about his body.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Set out before him, we see not only a satchel, but a broken, bloodied sword.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] Beside him, a woman leans on his shoulder. She grasps her ankle. She has no energy left to fight, to resist. She’s clearly already grieving the imminent death of the man beside her.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] At the extreme left, we see a variety of other figures in despair who seem to have given up. Their cause is lost.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Then behind, two figures in shadow who appear to be Ottoman soldiers guarding this group of prisoners.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] What explains an artist taking on the scale of history painting, the guise of history painting, but giving us instead a painting of unrelenting misery?

Dr. Harris: [3:38] By this point in the early 19th century, history painting, paintings of biblical subjects, of mythological subjects, of ancient Greek and Roman history, weren’t speaking to the 19th century public. Artists like Delacroix and other Romantic artists are looking for new ways to make paintings that are large, that still have a moral message, that still galvanize the public.

Dr. Zucker: [4:00] It is, in some ways, a perfect reflection of the painting that it faces in the gallery, which is Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” another contemporary scene that spoke to death that had no purpose.

[4:11] Delacroix doesn’t just choose a subject that is uncommon, he handles paint in ways that are uncommon. He uses color in ways that were quite distinct from what the Academy anticipated or expected.

[4:23] Look at the boot of the older woman in the foreground, the almost pure whites. Or notice, for instance, the line of red that creates a shadow under the arm of the dying male nude.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] Or look at the forearm of the seated older woman, where Delacroix has used blues to create shadows. This idea of colored shadows, of very loose and open brushwork, which is evident especially in the striped fabric worn by the seated figure on the left. These are all things that help to express the sense of the momentary, of the personal, the handling of the paint by the artist.

Dr. Zucker: [5:03] This creates a sense that this is a more personal, more subjective experience conveyed on this canvas directly by the artist’s hand.

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Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Eugène Delacroix, Scene of the Massacre at Chios," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/delacroix-scene-of-the-massacre-at-chios/.