The Massacre at Chios
Note: I wrote the following essay excerpt for UCLA’s 19th Century European Art course. It was written against the backdrop of life change, excitement, death, and grief. The class was my first at UCLA, and the course’s professor was the legendary Albert Boime, a specialist in art of revolution, propaganda, social change, and regime. Unfortunately, he passed away before the end of the quarter. I strove to learn all I could from him while he was alive. His reputation preceded him, and I can only imagine what his courses were like twenty years prior. I was excited about this paper (though what I post here is a mere excerpt and I have edited it for grammar), as it was the first I turned in at UCLA, and yet turning it in was marked by an unusual sorrowfulness. The Massacre at Chios has long been one of my favorite paintings, and a recent post by a blog I frequent brought the painting, and thus this essay excerpt, back into my mind. Note that at the time of writing, I didn’t have access to high-resolution photos of the work, so figures who I talk about below that appear dead may not, in detail views, seem dead. Hence, my views have changed, but the following is what I previously believed to be true about the work.
In 1821 the Greek War of Independence (the Greeks against their conquerors, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire) became a focus of European thinkers. These thinkers attempted to remedy the relationship between the ancient Greece that was so beloved in their culture with the current Greece that was oppressed by a greater empire. How was this possible? Where were the Greek heroes of old? One commentator noted “we find only a people enslaved” who have lost their ancient energy and might. As thinkers discussed this conflict in their circles, the ruling elite grew suspicious of the Greeks and supported the Ottomans. Perhaps this is because they saw nothing powerful in the Greeks.
The elites’ attitudes would change after the events of January 1822 when the Turkish sultan sent a 10,000 strong army to the island of Chios to enslave its inhabitants. The Greeks resisted to the best of their ability but were overtaken. The 1824 Salon painting by Delacroix depicts the aftermath of this invasion, called The Massacre at Chios. Delacroix uses a sickly looking palette of vomit-greens and browns with wild brush work. This method and coloring is propaganda in and of itself, meant to convey that this event was indeed sickening and chaotic and thus deserving of sympathies (which it was successful in obtaining). His brushwork blends together the ocean in the background with the brownish-green sky and the actual ground in the foreground. The environment looks more like a desert wasteland than a Greek island on the Aegean. Just as it is difficult to distinguish boundaries between the sea, sky, and ground, Delacroix makes it difficult to differentiate between the Greeks and the Turks. Two figures, on the right and left (in shadow), are easily identifiable as Turks due to their dress (turbans and robes) and their weapons. Apart from these, the central figures are somewhat similar in appearance: most are scarcely clothed, look fearful, sorrowful, indignant, or even dead.
There is no central figure in the painting—no one that can be identified as a hero. Instead, there is just an empty space, both above and at the center of the work. The figures in the foreground cling to each other in family groups, left desolate after their relatives were killed. A mother lays lifeless underneath the Turk’s horse, her baby attempting to suckle at her breast. Several children at the left are gathered around a red-hatted man—sexual slaves? Is the man a Turk? Next to this ambiguous figure, in the shadows, is an armed Turk. In front of him, a young couple is slumped over, the woman obviously dead, with their jewels and weapons sprawled out in front of them.
The scene seems less chaotic than it should be for an event boasting 10,000 enemy soldiers with an island rallying together against them; dead bodies strewn across the ground; mothers and children looking for each other, perhaps only to find the other dead. The only sign of any sort of violent movement comes from the twisting female captive on the right and the woman with her hands raised above her head, directly underneath the Turk on his horse as if about to be struck or perhaps begging for mercy. The Turk holds his elbows up on the reigns of his horse, looking down at the woman with a haughty expression. He doesn’t appear menacing—he doesn’t even look like a killer—just more like an indignant official. His sword is almost hidden, but it is there: he is guilty of killing and he should invoke fear. He looks human, however, albeit distant and unaffected by the scene in front of him. Perhaps he has sympathy for the broken Greek families before him—just as the elite of France should, in Delacroix’s view—even though they seem to disgust him.
The work is rich with symbolism and many aspects of it can be studied, especially the overtly erotic treatment of the twisting figures of the enslaved female Greek captives taken by the Turks. One of the females is only a girl: Delacroix may have included this to indicate that the dominance of the Turks over the Greeks was a violation of innocence. The poor, war-ravished Greeks are weak in body and strong in spirit. The enslaved, bound, nude woman to the right still struggles to preserve her dignity.
The figures in the foreground are removed from the violence: there are a number of Turks in the center background painted rather small in scale, perhaps in battle. Why are the foreground figures removed from the center of action? What is Delacroix trying to focus the viewer on through his use of the foreground space? — The loss of family, the violation of women, the violation of a poor and broken people and country? I think yes to all of these questions. These lost things are things that any member of society from any rank should feel sympathy for, as they are universal in that everyone has a family, most people perceive the violation of women as a disgusting act, and, back in France, the French working class are in the thick of poverty.
[…] Delacroix displayed his critiques of the world around him with appropriate levels of macabre realism, subtle technical devices, and downright fabrications—all to get his point across. He spared no expense in the creation of his work, nor did he count the cost of its frankness. He tuned out the voices of critics and vividly displayed the haunting horrors of current events.
Additional discussion and source of images can be found here.