Delécluze's Response to Delacroix's Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824)
MacNamidhe, Margaret, The Art Bulletin
Eugene Delacroix's main entry to the Salon exhibition of 1824 was entitled Scenes from the Massacres at Chios: Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery, etc.1 This work depicts the aftermath of an episode involving protracted bloodshed from the Greek War of Independence (1821-27).2 As has been well noted, critics at the time found the painting notoriously difficult to assess (Fig. 1). They saw imposing figures dominating the foreground, but the title gave them no help in identifying which of these figures should be considered the most important. They noted a fragmentation and obscuring of bodies, a thickening and thinning of paint across the surface of the canvas, and a sudden snaring of the attention by precise details, precise expressions. A figure of a bearded Greek male lies near the center of the composition (Fig. 2). He assumes a classic recumbent pose and is almost entirely nude. Stretched out among other figures also depicted as slumped or seated on sandy ground, he can hardly be described as completely different from his companions, who also seem exhausted and wounded. Yet time and again, contemporary viewers, whether or not they liked or disliked the Chios, professed themselves drawn to this one figure in particular.
This figure in the Chios held a strong appeal for one contemporary viewer who was not the most obvious candidate to harbor such an appreciation: Étienne-Jean Delécluze. The former student of Jacques-Louis David and later his biographer, Delécluze was already an eminent figure by 1824, in the first year of his long tenure as art critic for the Journal des Débats.3 In the history of nineteenth-century French painting, few critics are seen as more resistant to innovation and change, more assiduous in tending the Davidian flame than Delécluze. He appears to be an obvious example of "les immobiles," those opponents of change of whom the seemingly more open-minded critics in 1824 despaired.4 Nevertheless, Lee Johnson has consistently noted that Delécluze's comments on Delacroix's submissions to the Salon could be quite favorable on occasion, while Michael Fried has long underlined the importance of his criticism.5 Delécluze's stature as a critic has garnered increasing attention of late, as scholars have investigated the fraught experiences of his childhood and student years, on the one hand, and his theoretical pronouncements and role as cultural arbiter, on the other.6 As Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer and Philippe Bordes have recently pointed out, however, a closer focus on the individual positions and character of art critics from the period of the Bourbon Restoration in France is overdue.7 In the case of Delécluze, his critical engagement with particular paintings still remains rather broadly rendered, and his tendency to praise Delacroix has not yet been explored.
In 1824, Delécluze's attention was clearly drawn by just one element of the Chios. He twice called Delacroix's recumbent male the "most remarkable figure" in the painting, and twice noted his perplexing, compelling expression. He referred to the figure as "wounded, bleeding" and even "stupefied by his misfortune." Delécluze valorized this injured figure beyond all other elements in the composition, going so far as to credit him with the ability to resolve Delacroix's otherwise muddled painting: "[H]is facial expression," observed Delécluze, "beautiful in itself, seems in some way to be the explanation of the rest of the composition, which is too confused."8
Delécluze's uncommon praise for the Chios's focal male has led me to a new interpretation of the figure, one based on the relation which I believe it has in Delecluze's criticism to two of David's history paintings, specifically, the Intervention of the Sabine Women (Fig. 8) and the Leonidas at Thermopylae (Fig. 7) and their heroic central figures. Changing art historical approaches to the period of the early nineteenth century in French painting in general and the Chios in particular shape my approach. …