On April 11, 1822, the Turkish army crushed in blood the uprising of the population of the island of Chios. The artist paints his anger.
The symbol of martyred Greece
In the foreground, an old vaulted woman with a haggard face is placed in full light. He’s the main character. It symbolizes ancestral Greece. The gaze lost towards the sky, it expresses the pain and the helplessness of the Greek people facing their tragic destiny. Around it, several generations are represented. It’s chaos. Here, a child climbs the corpse of his mother, just above the hand of a dead woman seems to come out of the ground … For Eugène Delacroix, it’s about hitting hard. His picture is political. The artist then belongs to the Philhellene movement of the 19th century, progressive artists and intellectuals, bourgeois and liberal aristocrats, committed to Greek independence. They urged European governments to intervene to end the Turkish oppression.
Prostrate couples to move the public
In the center of the canvas, a young woman is hanging on her lover. He wears a fez, a red cap originating in ancient Greece and adopted by the subjects of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Everywhere couples embrace. We can imagine lovers, spouses, brothers and sisters, the heirs of ancient Greece reduced to slavery. To arouse the spectators’ empathy, Delacroix does not hesitate to approach the big story with the little one. It introduces feelings and kisses, blood and tears, and exacerbates expressions, color, drawing. He delivers a romantic manifesto that breaks radically with the classic tradition of history painting.
The implacable Sultan Mahmoud II’s victory
Overhanging, a Turkish rider emerges from the right edge of the painting, mounted on a prancing horse! It embodies the triumph of the army of Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II. Contrasting with the despondency of the other characters, the officer is depicted in action: he captures a naked woman – Emilie Robert, model and mistress of the painter – and pushes back with his shining saber a young man who came to rescue her. Everything in his attitude, his clothes, and his frame express domination and victory. The high horizon line further accentuates the weight of the defeat hanging over the Greeks. Using kidnapping and rape as a metaphor for the Turkish invasion, Delacroix stages the confrontation between brute force and love, barbarism, and humanist civilization, Muslims and Christians, a subjective interpretation of the event.
The unleashing of violence by Ottoman soldiers
Turks shoot a group of prisoners. They are thrown in the shade and in the background. In two months, the Ottoman soldiers killed 20,000 Greeks on the island of Chios (also called Scio) and reduced almost 50,000 to slavery, including women and children. Chora, the capital of the island, was looted; the Greeks were tortured, the women raped. It is said that the Turks decapitate their victims and send the heads to the sultan.
And desolation descends on the island of Chios
At the far end, in the cloudy sky rises smoke from burning houses. The landscape is in ruins. This is all that remains of Chios after the passage of the Turks, a desolate land strewn with the dead. Delacroix will stop at nothing to move the public. And it works! His canvas made a big splash when it was exhibited at the Salon in 1824. It helped tip Western opinion in favor of the Greeks. This prompted France, Russia, and Great Britain to give them their support. Greek independence was finally recognized in 1830.