Eugène Delacroix is perhaps the most famous of the painters moved to support Greece during its struggle for freedom from Ottoman rule through his art.
Delecroix was deeply affected by the barbaric retribution carried out by the Ottomans on the innocent islanders of Chios, when around 50,000 inhabitants were killed and a further 50,000 enslaved from a population of 120,000, an incident that caused international outrage. Delecroix’s The Massacre of Chios (1824) was his second attempt at a large-scale painting and it made him famous. He was also inspired by the Greek-themed poems of Lord Byron, the greatest celebrity of his day, whose sacrifice of his life for the cause at Missolonghi (1824) added enormous weight to his support of Greek liberty. Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), his passionate tribute to the late Byron, echoed the words of Dionysios Solomos:
And we saw thee sad-eyed,
The tears on thy cheeks
While thy raiment was dyed
In the blood of the Greeks.
Hymn to Liberty, by Dionysios Solomos (1823). Transl. Rudyard Kipling (1918).
As the war dragged on, another painting in the exhibition that had a profound effect was The Souliote Women (Les Femmes souliotes), exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1827 by the Dutch-French Romantic painter and Philhellene Ari Scheffer. The full title is: “Suliot women, seeing their husbands defeated by the troops of Ali, Pasha of Ioannina, decide to throw themselves off the rocks”. After their defeat in Kiafa during the Souliote War (1803) the women were facing enslavement and humiliation by the forces of Ali. Instead of falling captive they formed a dancing line and, while dancing a syrtos, jumped off the cliff to their deaths one by one, holding their young babies. Known as the Zalongo Incident, the sacrifice of the Souliote women is one of the most tragic moments of the Greek Struggle and by emphasising the emotion and suffering of the women, rather than their bravery and determination, Scheffer sought to influence public opinion in Europe. Even after an independent Greek state was created in 1833, Greece was not totally free and art inspired by Greek freedom continued to be produced.
A magnificent exhibition in the Louvre, opened by the Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the French President Emmanuel Macron, now marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek struggle. Mr Mitsotakis, who is a great admirer of Delacroix, emphasized the importance of paintings such as “The Massacre of Chios”. Not only did such works bring the Greek cause to the forefront of the European conscience, they also raised vital funds for the war effort. Mr Macron spoke warmly about the affinity between Greek and French ideals of liberty and the inspiration French people draw from the Greek tradition. France was one of the most constant supporters of Greek liberty, and as the Louvre publicity announces the exhibition seeks to celebrate ‘the cultural, diplomatic and artistic ties between Greece and France in the 19th century’.
To emphasise the artistic ties, the exhibition illustrates the importance of Greek art to France’s cultural identity by celebrating the arrival of the famous Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos) in Paris on 1 March 1821; virtually at the same moment as Archbishop Germanos III of Old Patras raised the flag of Greek insurrection (25 March 1821, the Feast of the Annunciation). The Hellenistic statue of a goddess is most likely a depiction of Aphrodite, although some scholars believe it to be that of Amphitrite, the consort of Poseidon, a deity worshipped in Melos. Probably sculpted by Alexandros of Antioch in Parian marble, it was discovered in April 1820 and soon became the most iconic possession of the Louvre Museum. Its central role in the collection helped restore national pride after Napoleon’s defeat and some of the items taken by him were returned to their countries. Among them was the Venus de’ Medici, another Hellenistic marble statue after the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles. The Medici Venus was returned to Florence on 27 December 1815 and is currently housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi. The Aphrodite of Milos served as its fitting replacement. The Louvre boasts other noteworthy examples of Greek sculpture, noteworthy is its prominent display of the Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, discovered in 1863 and the lesser known marble Roman copy of the Praxitelian bronze Apollo Sauroktonos (Lizard-slayer), one of many copies in existence including the bronze Cleveland Apollo.
Paris-Athens: The Birth of Modern Greece, 1675–1919
Louvre Museum, Hall Napoléon, 30 September 2021 – 7 February 2022
Admission (permanent collections + exhibitions) €17