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.
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 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.