In 1826, Eugène Delacroix, a prominent French Romantic painter, created a war masterpiece that would capture the hearts and imaginations of art enthusiasts for generations to come. Titled “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” the painting was a strong response to the tragic events that unfolded during the Greek War of Independence. Deeply moved by the plight of the Greek people, Delacroix channelled his passion and artistic genius into depicting the spirit of Greece herself. The focal point of the painting is a young woman, donned in traditional attire, symbolising the resilient nation. Her figure stands amidst the ruins of Missolonghi, a testament to the undefeatable spirit of the Greek people in the face of unimaginable suffering.
“Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” is a powerful ode to Delacroix’s commitment to social and political issues of his time. How did Delacroix capture the essence of the Greek War of Independence and become a voice for the oppressed and marginalised?
Third siege of Missolonghi
The Third Siege of Missolonghi, a significant chapter in the Greek War of Independence, took place from April 15, 1825, to April 10, 1826, and it caught the eye of Delacroix. The war in Greece had long served as a source of inspiration for Delacroix, with the atrocities committed during the Greek War of Independence beginning in 1821. It was during this period that Delacroix’s empathy for the Greek cause became evident, as seen in his powerful painting “The Massacre at Chios.” Completed in time for the 1822 Paris Salon, the artwork caused a stir within the art world due to its stark portrayal of the massacre. Departing from traditional heroics, Delacroix’s painting captured the raw reality of the dying Greeks, leaving a lasting impact on viewers. During The Third Siege of Missolonghi, despite previous failed attempts by the Ottomans to capture the city in 1822 and 1823, they returned with a more formidable force consisting of infantry and naval support in 1825. The Greek rebels valiantly defended Missolonghi for nearly a year until they faced a dire shortage of food. In a desperate attempt to escape, they embarked on a mass breakout that tragically resulted in a devastating defeat, with a large number of Greeks losing their lives. This catastrophic event caught the attention of the Great Powers, who, appalled by the atrocities, felt compelled to intervene and support the Greek cause.
The symbolism of Greece and its connection to Christianity
Within the canvas of “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” Eugène Delacroix vividly captures the essence of the Greek struggle for independence. The focal point of the painting is a kneeling woman, Greece personified, her figure commanding the viewer’s attention. Adorned in traditional Greek attire, her exposed chest signifies vulnerability and resilience, while her outstretched arms evoke a profound sense of sorrow and lamentation. Amidst the wreckage beneath her feet, a symbol of the devastating toll of war emerges—an outstretched hand of a fallen victim, a stark reminder of the human cost of conflict. In the backdrop, a figure cloaked in darkness, donning a yellow turban, plants an enemy flag, representing the oppressive forces Greece fearlessly fought against.
Delacroix’s interest in the Missolonghi exodus extended beyond his admiration for the Greek cause. The death of the renowned poet Lord Byron, an influential figure whom Delacroix deeply respected, in Missolonghi added personal significance to the subject matter. Delacroix captured the pathos and historical importance of the Greek struggle for independence through his masterful brushwork and evocative symbolism. “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of a nation, the human toll of war, and the indomitable power of art to commemorate and provoke contemplation on the human condition.
In addition to its profound symbolism, “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” incorporates elements inspired by Christianity. Several critics observed the prayer-like posture of Greece, reminiscent of early Christian iconography. The blue coat and white robe, associated with the Immaculate Conception, further strengthen this analogy to a secular representation of Mary. The painting’s power lies in the stark contrast between the traditional allegorical elements that idealise the subject and the raw portrayal of the scene, devoid of any concessions to idealism.
Located in Bordeaux, France, the “Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux” houses Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi in its North Wing, alongside a diverse collection of artworks spanning the 15th to the 20th century. This museum is one of the most significant outside of Paris and offers a glimpse into the Realism and Impressionist movements that flourished during the 19th century.
Eugène Delacroix, unlike his neoclassical rival Ingres, drew inspiration from the vibrant art of Rubens and the Venetian Renaissance. His focus on colour and movement rather than precise outlines and meticulous forms differentiated his style. As Baudelaire eloquently described, Delacroix was deeply enamoured with passion and strived to express it with utmost clarity. Considered one of the last masters of traditional painting, Delacroix’s work resonates with emotion and intensity. Notably, he holds the distinction of being one of the few old Masters of painting who was captured in photographs, leaving a visual record of his remarkable legacy.
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