Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824; Paris: Musée du Louvre)
French Romantic artists didn’t go in for half measures. The many figures depicted in their often enormous paintings loom on a life-size scale. And even when they’re seen outside, indoor illumination sets the stage for their often impassioned efforts. In Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) Raft of the Medusa (1819, Louvre), at least nineteen figures clamber over each other to attract a rescue ship. So what was Delacroix, Géricault’s younger peer, thinking when he painted figures that, to quote no less a fan than Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), seem as though they’re busy with nothing to do? Baudelaire wasn’t talking directly about the Scenes from the Massacres at Chios but he might as well have been. As if to move away from Gericauldian extremes (the Chios was shown at the Paris Salon five years after Géricault’s swan song), a slumped figure occupies the Chios’s centre. A female companion gently weeps beside him. The other figures follow their doleful leads. No group effort here. All the figures huddle under an oppressive sky. Astute propagandists for Impressionism would later make Delacroix’s choice of pigments and brushstrokes part of the creation myth of Impressionism, but there’s nothing sunny or light about the atmosphere in the Chios.
Delacroix shared the concern of his Romantic contemporaries in western Europe for the fate of Greece during the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). News reports in the Paris newspapers of massive casualties from Ottoman attacks on the island of Chios in 1822 deeply affected him. They gave him a title and a starting point for his great painting of 1824. The subject matter alone however, can’t tell us why Delacroix decided there would be no overwrought action or obvious drama in what would become his most ambitious painting to date. He opted, almost counter-intuitively, to depict figures that seemed dejected, completely de-dramatized. Was this even Romanticism any more? In the study of the Chios found in her book Delacroix and His Forgotten World: The Lost Origins of Romantic Painting (I.B. Tauris, 2015), Margaret MacNamidhe tracks each figure within the puzzling, protracted composition that Delacroix gave to the Chios.
Delacroix and the Making of Modern Art is at the National Gallery until May 2016
Margaret MacNamidhe is an art historian, specialising in the paintings of Eugène Delacroix. She is Lecturer in Art History at the University of Chicago and Visiting Lecturer atWilliams College, Massachusetts. She gained her Ph.D. from the History of Art department at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.