New York.- By Catherine Tsounis
“A confluence of transformative historical events set the stage for Delacroix’s brilliant artistic achievements. A tumultuous age of revolution and counterrevolution had raised the political stakes. The birth of the modern newspaper industry began the mass production of information. The consolidation of artistic authority in the French capital created a powerful cultural pedestal. Painting, in short, was at a critical crossroads. It could catapult the propaganda.” 1 Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic.
Art reflects the history of the times. Our Art reflects our 2019 civilization. Eugene Delacroix was above all a Phil-Hellene influenced by Lord Gordon Byron’s works, who died in Missolonghi. His love of Ancient and Modern Greece is seen in the 2018-19 Museum of Metropolitan Art’sexhibition. I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see his art work. The descriptions did not highlight his preoccupation with Ancient Greece, Byzantine Empire, 1821 Revolution or the Arab civilization that preserved the Byzantine learning. The art work itself highlighted Delacroix’s love for Western civilization’s contribution by the Greek world.
“Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi”, is an imposing portrait dominating the entrance exhibit wall. His work was the single Art reason exciting Europe to push for the Freedom of Greece in 1821 from the Ottoman Empire. I travelled two hours to go to the Met to see “Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi”. This 7 by 5 foot painting did not disappoint anyone.
“Painted in 1826 by Eugène Delacroix, the leading French Romantic painter of the day, Greece on the ruins of Missolonghi is one of the most celebrated French paintings of the 19th century. It was executed shortly after the event it commemorates: In 1825, during the Greek war of independence from Ottoman occupation, Turkish troops besieged the city of Missolonghi. The Greek population, already decimated by famine and epidemics, attempted a heroic liberation that ended in tragedy when the Turks killed most of the population of the city. Delacroix, like many European artists and intellectuals, was a fervent supporter of the Greek cause. Most of the painting is dedicated to the figure of Greece herself, represented as a young woman wearing traditional costume. Her posture and expression recall traditional religious images of the Virgin weeping over the body of Christ. The image of suffering Greece succeeded in conveying the plight of the Greeks to the French public. Now kept in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, sister city to Los Angeles, this monumental painting has seldom traveled.” 2
“Philhellenes took the Hellenists’ idealized portrait of Greece. This portrait associated ancient Greece with the ideals of freedom and democracy. This vision was transformed into a call for the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. Philhellenism finally became a political movement, designed to bring pressure on the superpowers of the time to free the country that was the foundation of European values from eastern despot.”3
Who was Eugene Delacroix (1798-1862)? He was one of the greatest creative genius of the 19th century. The exhibition, a joint project with the Musée du Louvre, illuminates Delacroix’s restless imagination through more than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, and manuscripts—many never seen in the United States.
My criticism? “The Massacre at Chios” was not shown. An 1824 portrait of “Head of an Old Greek Woman” that was part of the painting was shown. Did political correctness have something to do with this exclusion? “The Massacre at Chios” was his second major painting The work is more than four meters tall, and shows some of the horror of the wartime destruction visited on the Island of Chios in the Chios massacre.
A frieze-like display of suffering characters, military might, ornate and colorful costumes, terror, disease and death is shown in front of a scene of widespread desolation. A military attack on the inhabitants of Chios by Ottoman forces commenced on 11 April 1822 and was prosecuted for several months into the summer of the same year. The campaign resulted in the deaths of twenty thousand citizens, and the forced deportation into slavery of almost all the surviving seventy thousand inhabitants. A military attack on the inhabitants of Chios by Ottoman forces commenced on 11 April 1822 and was prosecuted for several months into the summer of the same year. The campaign resulted in the deaths of twenty thousand citizens, and the forced deportation into slavery of almost all the surviving seventy thousand inhabitants.4
Another major painting omission was the 1840 “The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople”. Unfortunately, it is not in the Louvre’s collection but in Louis-Philippe’s new historical galleries at Versailles. We must go to Versailles to see a rendition of an event that changed world history. “For Louis-Philippe’s new historical galleries at Versailles, Delacroix painted a characteristically independent, if not actually subversive account of The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople,” described at the Web Gallery of Art. “Depicting the climax of the Fourth Crusade, largely a French initiative, this might have been thought a glorious theme, as well as a nod towards that latter-day crusader Napoleon,” “ But the campaign had been fatally tarnished by the pillage it visited upon Constantinople, and Delacroix allows his victors no pleasure in their conquest. Their leader, Baldwin of Flanders, turns away from the vanquished infidel, remorseful or uncertain what to do next, and even his horse stoops as if in sorrow. In “The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople”, like in The Massacre of Chios, there is a meditation on the misfortunes of war, in both the conquerors on their trembling steeds tower over prostrate women.”5
Professor Father Nicola Madaro at St. San Giorgio dei (“Saint George of the Greeks”) Church in Castello, Venice, Northern Italy, gave us a glimpse of this event. “When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople, there were 500,000 persons. In 1204 A.D. it was the largest city in Europe, Rome, Paris, Vienna were villages. Constantinople was “The City”. From the mid-5th century to the early 13th century, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe and it was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times. The 1204 Fourth Crusade took all the treasures. The Crusades weakened Constantinople. The City might have still been around if the Crusades did not weaken her.”6
Delacroix’s “Studies of Seven Greek Coins” and “Studies of Twelve Greek and Roman Coins” at the exhibition showed his interest in ancient times. “Cleopatra and the Peasant”, an 1838 painting, reveals the Queen’s contemplation of suicide and degradation by the Roman conquerors. “Cleopatra VII ruled ancient Egypt as co-regent (first with her two younger brothers and then with her son) for almost three decades. She became the last in a dynasty of Macedonian rulers founded by Ptolemy, who served as general under Alexander the Great, during his conquest of Egypt in 332 B.C. Well-educated and clever, Cleopatra could speak various languages and served as the dominant ruler in all three of her co-regencies. Her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as her supposed exotic beauty and powers of seduction, earned her an enduring place in history and popular myth.”7
A sketch of “Justinian Drafting His Laws” reveals the Byzantine emperor drafting The Corpus Juris or Code of Justinian, that continues to have a major influence on public international law. “The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan” was inspired by “The Giaour”, a poem by Lord Gordon Byron. Delacroix’s paintings shows his admiration for the cultural history of the Greeks and expressing his sympathy with their struggles: “Greece on the Ruins of Messolonghi” (a tribute to that Greek holocaust and also homage to Lord Byron), “Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople” (a reminder of the catastrophe that the Crusaders wrought against the Byzantine Empire in 1204), and “Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha” was used by Delacroix for fund raising on behalf of the Greeks…Delacroix used the power of the visual in his paintings to raise sympathy and funds for the Greeks; while Byron used the power of romantic poetry and his personal fortune, and sacrificed his life for them.8
“Medea about to Kill her Children” presents the pain of a woman deserted by her husband. This subject is taken from Euripides’ tragedy, “Medea”. “Count Demetrius de Palatiano”, a prominent Corfu aristocrat in a Souliot Greek (not Albanian) costume is colorful. “Apollo Victorious Over the Serpent Python” shows the struggle of Sun and Darkness.
The Eugene Delacroix’s exhibition describes his belief “What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”9