Rebuilding from the ruins - Images of Greece by Eugene Delacroix

Author: Areti Devetzidis

Devetzidis, Areti, 2017 Rebuilding from the ruins - Images of Greece by Eugene Delacroix, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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This thesis brings together nineteenth-century Greek history, French art and French politics, and develops a narrative around four paintings about Greece by the French artist Ferdinand-Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863). The four paintings represent pivotal moments in Greek history. The first two paintings, Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824), and Greece on the Ruins of Messolonghi (1826) represent the drama and violence of Greek war of independence that broke out in 1821. Regarding the last two paintings; Medea Pursued and about to kill her Children (1838) represents the classical period of Greek antiquity, and the Crusaders Entering Constantinople (1840 – 41) represents the Byzantine era.

The thesis evolved around the life and times of Delacroix, his early bereavements, his early struggles with poverty, and his efforts to define himself as an artist and a thinker. His copious letters and Journals reveal an individual of extraordinary abilities, unique talent and powerful vision.

He never travelled to Greece, but his imagination and thorough research into the background of his subjects enabled him to produce archetypal and diachronic images associated with Greece. He seemed able to represent events related to aspects of Greek history believably and compassionately. It is likely that his capacity for empathy was the result of his own suffering. The series of ‘amputations’(in the words of Réne Huyghe), he experienced, such as the deaths of his father, brother and mother, by the time he was sixteen years of age, as well as the public speculations regarding his illegitimacy, affected him deeply. He suffered from chronic ill health that worsened over time until, in the last few years of his life, it made him a virtual recluse.

He was ambivalent about the tensions in the art world, and not prepared to be associated closely either with the classicists or the romantics. The individuality of his painting, his brilliant colour, and his ‘lack of finish’, set him apart from other artists, as did his loyalty to the artists and movements of the past. As an interpreter of the chaos, destructiveness and radical transformations of his time, intellectually and emotionally, he is probably unrivalled.

This is the first time such a narrative associating Greece, French art, and four paintings about Greece by Eugène Delacroix, has been attempted, and in the course of this study, new information emerged regarding the artist’s engagement with Greek themes. Furthermore, it revealed the tragectory of an exceptional artist who was able, not only to transform the art of his time but also to shape the future evolution of European art, by dramatising the experience of a trans - forming light.

The four “Greek” abovementioned paintings reveal Delacroix’s dealings with tensions and ambivalences which transcend all sorts of isms (like romanticism, classicism, neo-classicism, modernism), elevating him to the status of leading artist of the 19th century, and in the avant-garde of the 20th century.

Keywords: Greek War of Independence, French revolution, Eugene Delacroix, romaniticism, neoclassicism, nineteenth century French painting, Medea, Messolonghi, crusaders sack of Constantinople,

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Professor Michael Tsianikas