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Current time:0:00Total duration:3:15

Delacroix, Scene of the Massacre at Chios

Video transcript

(melodious, rhythmic music) - [Dr. Steven Zucker] 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] And this is a contemporary subject, which is important because large paintings were generally reserved for subjects from history, from mythology. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Or religious painting. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And yet here we have a contemporary event and not a heroic event. In fact, the opposite, an unrelenting scene of violence and indifference to suffering. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] 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, and that's precisely the story that Delacroix is telling here. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And, in fact, at this time, many Europeans went to fight for the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] 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. Beth Harris] 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. Steven Zucker] Where we see towns being burned. But 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 and 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. Beth Harris] And look at the horse, how loosely painted he is, how wild he looks. And 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. Steven Zucker] And perhaps the white at the mouth shows the horse in such a fury that its mouth is foaming. - [Dr. Beth Harris] If we moved 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. Steven Zucker] And look at the delicacy with which Delacroix has painted this pair. The child's flesh is still pink, he's alive, but her color is more blue. And we can see those blue-green veins in her breast, in her neck, and in her temple. And her eyes are now completely vacant. - [Dr. Beth Harris] 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've done this to a woman. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] Just beside her head, an older woman sits who looks completely vulnerable. And then we have another grouping on the left side. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Here we see a male nude whose eyes are similarly vacant and who's wounded and bleeding and yet there's still something noble and beautiful about his body. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] And set out before him, we see not only a satchel, but a broken, bloodied sword. - [Dr. Beth Harris] 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. Steven Zucker] And at the extreme left we see a variety of other figures, in despair, who seemed to have given up, their cause is lost. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And then behind, two figures in shadow, who appear to be Ottoman soldiers guarding this group of prisoners. - [Dr. Steven Zucker] So 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. Beth Harris] 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. And 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. Steven Zucker] It is in some ways a perfect reflection of the painting that it faces in the gallery, which is Gericault's, "Raft of the Medusa," another contemporary scene that spoke to death that had no purpose. but 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. 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. Beth Harris] 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. Steven Zucker] And this creates a sense that this is a more personal, more subjective experience conveyed on this canvas, directly by the artist's hand. (melodious, rhythmic music)