Delacroix’s Greek Revolution

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Nicolai von Eggers

Visitors who enter room 700 at the Louvre, a large red hall on the first floor of the Aile Denon, are confronted with some of the supreme masterpieces of French nineteenth-century painting. Here, viewers find Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa (1818-9) and Antoine-Jean Gros’ iconic Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (1804). But pride of place goes to a significant number of works by Eugène Delacroix, one of France’s most famous painters. The collection includes Delacroix’s arguably most famous picture, Liberty Guiding the People (1831), painted in the direct aftermath of the July Days of 1830[1] and celebrating the downfall of the restoration monarchy in favour of a constitutional monarchy. Facing this picture on the opposite wall a little further down, one finds his allegorical depiction of The Massacre of Chios (1824), painted during the Restoration period and after the outbreak of the Greek Revolution in 1821.[2]

Eugène Delacroix, Le Massacre de Chios, 1824.
Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple, 1830.

The two paintings depict two revolutionary upheavals: the Greek Revolution of 1821 and the French of 1830. Both depictions are clearly sympathetic towards the Greek and French revolutionaries. But they are at the same time very different. In Liberty Guiding the People, the composite mass of revolutionaries is virulent, energetic, storming towards the viewer. By contrast, the Greek revolutionaries of the Massacre of Chios are passive and meek. A naked child lies over his dying mother, a young woman caresses her lover, an elderly woman stares apathetically upwards. In Liberty Guiding the People, the revolutionaries carry weapons: a young student with two pistols, a middle-aged artisan with a rifle, a harrowed worker with a sabre.  In the Massacre of Chios, it is conversely the Ottoman oppressor that is armed. An Ottoman soldier, mounted on his horse, is about to draw his scimitar to slay an unarmed woman offering feeble resistance; in the immediate background, shrouded in almost total darkness, another Turkish soldier carries a rifle. Further back we see hordes of soldiers massacring unarmed inhabitants in their dozens.

Why this difference between the depiction of the French revolutionaries of 1830 and the Greek revolutionaries of 1821? More specifically, why is there no “liberty guiding the Greek people” portraying the Greek revolutionaries in an act of self-emancipation? In order to answer this question, we need to understand the context of Delacroix’s Massacre of Chios and his goal in painting it. I will argue that we should not see Delacroix as the republican he is sometimes made out to be, but rather as a careful constitutional monarchist favouring moderation and the balance of powers.

The initial reception of the Greek Revolution in France was one of confusion, indecision, and disagreement. Official policy, as defined in agreement with the Concert of Europe, was not to support any rebellions of whatever kind, which meant that voices supporting the Restoration monarchy could not on any grounds support the Greek cause. For republicans and liberals, on the other hand, who were otherwise prevented from discussing their ideas openly, the Greek Revolution became something of a proxy for the discussion of revolutionary and republican politics. Thus, through European media networks, French opposition newspaper Le constitutionnel translated proclamations and eye-witness accounts from the Greek Revolution, while in the liberal newspaper Le courrier français, François-André Mignet, who was about to write one of the first republican accounts of the French Revolution in 1824, dedicated a number of articles to discussing the Greeks’ cause. Paradigmatic of the republican position was Armand Carrel, future editor-in-chief of the leading republican newspaper after the 1830 Revolution, Le National, who in 1825 published his Resumé de l’histoire des grecs modernes. Here, he criticised what he saw as royalist tendencies of parts of the Greek revolutionaries, while supporting the ”republican” tendencies of people such as Alexandros Mavrokordatos, and argued that the Greek Revolution was a fight for “le droit human.”[3] By the time Carrel published his account in 1825, he could—and did—engage with no fewer than five general accounts of the Greek Revolution written in French or English in addition to the hundreds of newspaper articles and dozens of pamphlets and books discussing the political situation in Greece. 

The Greek Revolution was thus widely discussed in France; it moved beyond the romantic ideals of philhellenism and rather touched upon essential question of politics and legitimacy. Furthermore, it was a discussion in which there was widespread support for the Greek revolutionaries’ right to overthrow an oppressive regime.

The wide and sometimes radical support for the Greek Revolution was viewed with concern amongst leaders in France and Europe. At the Congress of Verona in 1822, the Austrian and Russian empires had decided upon a policy of non-intervention in Greece. It might have been tempting to chip away at Ottoman territory and influence, but the fear of stoking up revolution, no matter how politically moderate, was deemed too high. Austrian forces had just put down uprisings in Italy in 1821, and the French army was given the green light to invade Spain and put an end to the Triennio Liberal in 1823. Republicans like Armand Carrel had in fact just returned from fighting for the Spanish liberal-republican resistance against the French army, and faced charges as traitors in their home country. Carrel was initially handed a death sentence in a military court, but he was later acquitted.

Gradually, however, intellectuals in France and Europe were coming up with a solution to generate a ”conservative” cause for supporting the Greek insurgents. The key was to call for support of Christians in the face of “Muslim oppression.” This had in fact been the strategy of Greek revolutionaries right from the beginning. Both the 1822 Constitution and Declaration of Independence called for the people of Europe to assist their Christian brethren in Greece.

By the mid-1820s, the strategy was beginning to catch on. Notable intellectuals such as François-René de Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant published pamphlets in favour of the Greek cause in 1825 by appealing to Christianity. These arguments intertwined with calls for protections of humanity in the face of “barbarism.” Thus, the way was paved not for supporting a revolution but rather for what many see as the first ”humanitarian intervention” in world history.[4] In this context, the Chios massacre committed by Ottoman forces against a local Christian population of Greeks and which took place in April 1822, gradually became an increasingly central talking point.

Eugène Delacroix, La Grèce sur les ruines de Missolonghi, 1826.

When Delacroix picked up his brush to paint a perspective on the Greek cause, he was making a clear political statement. The paintings evince a moderate position, showing us the suffering of the Greeks as mere humans, depoliticised, without arms, without might, and in need of protection from a brutal oppressor. In Delacroix’s depiction, there is no political cause, no flag, and no Greek guerrilla army storming towards us to announce the coming of a new world order in which the nation will be sovereign and self-determined. The Greek revolutionaries were in fact armed rebels who fought for their cause and committed their own massacres, but this is not how Delacroix chose to depict them. In Delacroix’s view, the Greeks are innocent humans who are suffering great cruelty and in need of someone to come and save them—which is what they got when the allied forces decided to intervene and save what was by then a faltering independence war in 1827. After the republican-liberal uprising of 1821 had failed, and the republican-liberal support in France started flailing along with it, it was now the cause of constitutional monarchies that would become triumphant in Europe and in Greece. Seen from this perspective, Delacroix’s extreme depoliticization of the Greek revolutionaries in The Massacre of Chios (1824) helped open the path to ”humanitarian” intervention and the instalment of a constitutional monarchy.

Still, the Greek Revolution gave republicans across Europe hope and belief that the revolutionary ideals were not dead. As the Greek revolutionaries showed, the revolutionary ideals of self-emancipation and self-rule (i.e. republican rule) could be revived and they could be reinvented for a new age. Seen from this perspective, Delacroix’s legacy is more ambiguous. Delacroix’s project was clearly more in line with established politics, but his 1826 painting, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, still portrays the Greek nation as young women emerging alive from the ruins of the Greek revolution—far less subdued and far more independent that those massacred at Chios. 

The 1831 Liberty Guiding the People is even more ambiguous in its political message. On the one hand, it is clearly a celebration of the July Monarchy installed after the Glorious Days of 1830. The “people” being guided by Liberty consist of a worker with a royalist ribbon and a pistol in his belt like a Vendéen royalist rebel, a soldier with a Napoleonic hat, a well-dressed middle-class artisan, and a poor peasant on her knees. This is not some radical republican movement but rather the entire people in all its praise for the monarchical and Bonapartist tradition that embraces a new dawn of liberty under the July monarchy. Still, even though the government had initially bought the artwork with the intention of displaying it in the Palais du Luxembourg, the painting was quickly deemed too dangerous because of its positive depiction of rebellion and self-emancipatory violence. Except for a short appearance in 1848, the painting would not go on permanent display before 1863. The power of art often lies in its multiple meanings, and in the case of Delacroix’s paintings the message of popular revolt and national self-liberation tended to drown out the moderate constitutional monarchism its author intended.

Visitors arriving on the first floor of the Aile Denon at the Louvre can turn right and see Jacques-Louis David’s portrayal of heroic republicans and a glorified Napoleon. Here, they will find a classical republicanism for the Revolutionary era with its emphasis upon the virtue of outstanding individuals sacrificing themselves for the common good, whether they be Socrates, the Horatii, or Marat. But visitors can also turn left and enter the room of Delacroix. Here, they will they will find revolutionary ideals adapted to a new age in which human rights came to legitimise intervention, freedom came to be identified with the unified nation, and the Greek Revolution, if only for a moment, came to be the guiding beacon in the struggle for liberty and equality.


Nicolai von Eggers is an intellectual historian and, from 2022, postdoc at the Department of History at Copenhagen University where he works (together with professor Mogens Pelt) on the project, “The Greek Revolution and European Republicanism.” He is currently writing a book on the political thought of the French revolutionaries.

Title Image: Eugène Delacroix, Le Massacre de Chios, 1824.

Further Reading:

Roderick Beaton, Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution (Cambridge UP, 2013).

Paschalis Kitromilides and Constantinos Tsoukalas, eds., The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary (Harvard UP, 2021).

Stéphane Guégan, Delacroix: Peindre contre l’oubli (Flammarion, 2018).

Claire Constans, ed., La Grèce en revolution: Delacroix et les peintres français (RMN, 1996) [Catalogue for the eponymous exhibition hosted in Bordeaux and Athens, 1996-7].

Endnotes:

[1] Delacroix writes to his brother on October 28, 1830 that he has started working on “a modern subject, the barricade,” which he “will be painting the for patrie,” here quoted from the Images du Louvre: Dossiers documentaires (available online at http://mini-site.louvre.fr/trimestriel/2021/Dossier_images_Louvre/toc/), 243.

[2] A note from January 12, 1824, Delacroix notes that having had dinner with colonel Olivier Voutier, who had fought in the Greek Revolution and written his memoirs about it (which Delacroix had read), he has now decided to begin a work on the subject. Eugène Delacroix, Journal: 1822-1863(Paris: Plon, 1980), 47.

[3] Armand Carrel, Resumé de l’histoire des grecs modernes (Paris: Lecointe, 1829, second edition), 384.

[4] See, for example, Alexis Heraclides and Ada Dialla, “Intervention in the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1832” from https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/9781526125125/9781526125125.00014.xml

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