March 30, 2011

Eugène Delacroix's "The Massacre at Chios"

Nationality: French
Creation Date: 1824
Size: 164 x 139 inch (419 x 354 cm)
Media: Oil on canvas
Location: The Louvre, Paris, France

Delacroix Massacre of Chios

The history of the actual massacre at Chios is incredibly tragic. From my understanding, by 1822 the Ottoman empire had occupied Greece for four centuries. When a Greek rebellion began, soldiers from the Ottoman Empire responded by landing troops on the island of Chios, killing, raping, plundering, torturing and burning as they went. After two weeks they had killed tens of thousands of Greeks (one source said as many as 90,000 civilians), enslaving and exiling tens of thousands more. This is one of two major paintings by Delacroix that responded to the tragedies inflicted upon the Greeks by the Ottomans.

Unfortunately, this is a painting that I believe received attention based on its scale, the philosophy implicit in its composition and its reference to real events, but not from its artistic quality. It was a great subject, rich with artistic potential, but alas, it was a missed opportunity.

Delacroix is famous as a Romantic artist--I would even go so far as to say he is the definitive French Romantic painter. Despite my love of Romantic fiction, I think Delacroix is an incredibly overrated artist. In general, the rendering in his work is sub-par. Many of his works have a frustrating flatness and blotchiness. The color in this painting has definitely faded, yellowed and darkened, but regardless of the painting’s original condition, as it stands the color is so bland that it appears grotesque to me. Although Delacroix practically invented the “broken color” employed by many Impressionist painters (1) the color in Delacroix’s work is nothing special. Delacroix’s brushwork is rarely vivacious, and often sloppy. The shapes of the clouds here were missed opportunities and as it stands I don’t know if it is possible to have painted the sky in a less interesting way. The figures’ individual gestures and poses are not bad, but not close to the best I’ve seen. I suspect that the groupings of the figures bear more resemblance to lifeless lumps because of the lackluster way Delacroix posed his models, not for any profound reason. Finally, the rendering of the rope around the arms of the nude woman to the far right is a joke.

The only quality of this painting that I think is nice is the way each group of figures has a unified spatial gradation from dark (back) to light (front).

If a viewer only knew about Rand's use of the term "Romantic" without knowing about the history of Romantic visual art, he might guess that all paintings from the Romantic movement emphasized heroic figures, but this was not the case. There are more paintings of this kind from the Neo-Classical period than from the Romantic period in the visual arts. Many of Delacroix’s compositions, including this one, are stylistically more in line with Rand's term "Naturalism" with its lack of focus and lack of implicit values in the specific subjects. (2)

One could argue that this is not an image of how life should be, but instead how life should not be--an idea that Rand discussed in regards to Dostoyevsky’s novels—and therefore it is a powerful embodiment of values. The weak composition, shapes and color could all be intentional and therefore, my negative reaction is proof of its artistic quality. My response to this claim (which is not at all rare in contemporary discussions of art) is that you can’t say a work of art is good because it’s bad. The emotionless quality of some of the victims and the dire situation of others as they are being assaulted might be read as signifying a horrific complacency towards death but one could just as easily assume the artist meant to embody a complacency towards death believing that it is the proper attitude to have. Ultimately, that idea is not embodied in the work, but merely inferred by a viewer. Additionally, the various opportunities to more thoroughly embody the idea of the horror of complaisance towards death were missed.

Instead, I think it is fair to say this is merely a mediocre work and that it simply falls short of powerfully depicting the tragedy of the subject. It is easy to assume quality comes with fame, but this is not always the case

1. See Delacroix’s Barque of Dante
2. Philosophical values, not “light-dark tones”

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