At the heart of symbolism

The conquest of freedom

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Massacres at Chios

Byron nourished Delacroix's passion for Greece. This country suggested all the themes able to heighten a soul wishing to free itself from academicism and ready to conquer freedom. Greece embodied at once the call of the origins of a threatened civilization, the fight for freedom and the attraction for the East. The death of Byron at Missolonghi in 1824 brought the intense excitement to its climax.

The balanced composition of the canvas entitled “Massacres at Chios” is based on two prominent features:

  • The arrangements of the characters ordered in two pyramid-shaped groups that contribute to an overall animated effect;
  • The harmony of the almost monochrome colours, where light and obscure complement each other, underlining the disastrous aspect of the drama.

These two features undeniably carry the mark of Théodore Géricault in:

They are both innovating while giving a unity to the painting.

The belligerents

Massacres at Chios (Detail)Only the mane of the horse and the head of the rider rise above the horizon line; the bulk of the drama is buried in a land of injured or dead bodies that opens onto the free background space occupied by the invader.

An intertwined couple is standing at the canvas centre, at the intersection of the diagonals linking the extremities of the horizon line and lower edge of the painting. Behind the couple, the shadow of an Ottoman soldier stands over them. The man and the woman know their lot. They can only fight or implore the enemy:

  • In the fight (on the right), the rider abducts the woman and is ready to kill her lover. The same lot awaits the captive as shown by the lying bodies of the dead woman and child in quest of the breast of his mother.
  • In the supplication (on the left), the issue is not at all more favourable in view of an implacable soldier; death's door will be at the final outcome.

Moreover, the common destiny is underlined by the similarity of both the profiles of the lying dead mother and the imploring spouse.

The use of curved lines accentuate a movement bounding from one form to another. The tension of these curves binds together the elements of the composition into a dramatic unity.

Only one character seems to temporarily escape this carnage, this infernal circle: an old woman with an absent look, raising her eyes to heaven. She represents the ancient Greece ready to die. The disaster on earth contrasts with the calm, the peace in heaven, symbol of freedom. The absence of birds in the sky is a sign of the lost freedom.

The colours

The connection of complementary colours tends to reinforce the painting unity. The contrast is created by the association of warm and cool tones: red and green of the dress of the dead lying woman; the blue sky and the orange clouds; the cool green strokes alternating with warm ochre and brown of the landscape. The background colours of the canvas is resulting from the complementary blue-greens and brown-reds as well as flashes of white, symbols of light, tinged with flesh tones.

The light brings out the fore and backgrounds, the captive, the undressed dead woman and the child. This light reflected by the bodies symbolizes the will of the people to liberate themselves from the foreign domination, to be free. Nevertheless, this outer light constitutes only a reflection of the true light that illuminates the being's own enemies, his inner enemies. For the being can not liberate himself from the enemy's yoke without killing within himself the servility that counterbalances the freedom will.

Liberty leading the people

The Marquis de La Fayette, hero of the American uprising against the British crown, presided over the destiny of the 1830's revolution. Paris rose up after the promulgation of the orders of July (suppression of the freedom of the press, dissolution of the elected Chamber etc.). After three days of hard fight, the “Trois Glorieuses” (26-27-28 July), the victorious insurrection forced the king to abdicate.

The external events got Delacroix out of his melancholic and undecided state; they inspired him to start painting again and gave him a new theme. He did not show any benevolence for the rebels, but when he saw the three colour flag, the flag of the former Empire, fluttering over Notre-Dame, he became enthusiastic for this people that had at first frightened him. It is not the man, but the artist that exhibits the allegory “Liberty leading the people” at the Salon in 1831. This same year, Victor Hugo published “Notre-Dame of Paris”, the towers of which rise above the clamours and smoke and dominate the events in the capital.

The rebels

Liberty is represented by a great feminine figure climbing barricade. Her face is inspired by the dead mother or imploring spouses of the “Massacres at Chios”.

The figure fits in a pyramid-shaped form echoing G2ricault. Now, the pyramid is composed of a horizontal basis and a vertical axis. The horizontal basis, formed of blood stained debris where inert or dying bodies of adverse camps are mixed, represents the dead world. The vertical, described by the figure and the beings in the background, characterizes the living world. The verticality is even underlined by the flag pole and the weapons brandished towards the sky. Moving from the horizontal to the vertical amounts to move from the terrestrial and obscure world to the celestial and luminous world.

Although inscribed in a static pyramid, the central figure seems nevertheless to dash forward towards the sky light while dragging the cohort of rebels, the beings of the shadow, in her wake. The rising towards light lights the being himself and the surrounding world. He becomes aware of the chains that fasten him to the world and stop him in his flight. He tries to liberate himself in order to live in freedom and find himself. This unity of movement is even reinforced by the choice of the colours used.

The colours

The colours of the flag give the painting tonality. The warm (red) and cool (blue) colours flank the white one, the transparency of which is letting straw yellow light mixed with smoke go through. Median colour between the extremes of the rainbow spectrum, yellow symbolizes the colour that emerges from the darkness and illuminates the being and the surrounding world. The mainly ochre dress makes the parallel of light and freedom obvious.

The unity of the obscure and luminous worlds is underlined by the use of complementary warm red-orange and cool green-blue colours that can also be found on the barricade as well as in the sky or through the association of yellow-violet touches to underline shadows.


  • René Huyghe:
  • “Imaginary taking over”. Flammarion Publisher, 1976;
  • Notably, the chapter entitled “Delacroix, the liberator”.
  • “Delacroix or the solitary fight”. Robert Laffont Publisher, 1990.