By CATHY YANG, Pennsylvania, the USA
The Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, 2015
Professor: Dan Edelstein
Graduate Teaching Assistant: Dylan J. Montanari
"In the end, true art is not about a beautiful view, but what it says about the artist, what it does to the viewer."
Art is said to be the signature of civilizations. Throughout history, artists have served as both chroniclers and commentators of important events. During the 19th century, with the emergence of radical political revolutions across Europe, Romanticism became the dominant artistic style for depicting revolutionary events. An examination of two prominent Romantic paintings reveal that Eugene Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios (fig. 1) and Francisco Goya’s Third of May 1808 (fig. 2), though seemingly alike in subject matter and style, are in fact radically different perceptions of similar events.
Delacroix’s perspective as a foreign observer, his use of nudity and Orientalized ornamentation, and his focus on the conventional aesthetic over reality all serve to undermine his support for the Greek Revolution's cause. Goya, on the other hand, diverges from tradition by depicting the blunt reality of war without focus on aesthetic appeal. He commemorates the Spanish War of Independence in what is often considered the first true piece of modern art with a strong anti-war message that has lived on to inspire some of the most radical artistic revolutions in the 20th century.
The Massacre at Chios and the Third of May 1808 seem to share some similarities in subject matter: both are depictions of contemporary events that are part of larger political revolutions. The Massacre depicts a tragic scene from the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), a successful revolution that freed Greece from Ottoman control. When Greek revolutionaries from neighboring islands raided the Turkish quarters on the island Chios, the Ottoman government responded in a swift and merciless counterattack, murdering thousands of innocent Chians and enslaving many more. The Chian population of nearly 120,000 was reduced to 30,000 during the massacre. The tragedy was reported throughout Europe, inciting widespread sympathy for the Greek Revolution. Until the twentieth century, the name Chios symbolized one of the most violent reprisals in modern history. Delacroix’s painting, completed within two years of the event, was part of an international philhellenic movement of sympathy for the Greeks inspired by the atrocity of the Chios massacre. The Massacre consists of a dozen dead and dying bodies of Greek men, women, and children scattered across a desolate landscape. A Turkish horseman charges in from the right, bearing down on his innocent victims.
At a glance, Goya’s Third of May 1808 has the same subject of civil ruin and the slaughter of innocents. The painting centers on two groups: a frightened mass of captive civilians, with a single man at the center, awaiting imminent death from the rigidly poised firing squad with their rifles at the ready. Like the Massacre, it is a scene from a contemporary revolution. Goya finished the painting in 1814 to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleonic forces during the Peninsular War, also known as the Spanish War of Independence, which was itself a political revolution sparked by French occupation. The crises brought about by invasion, revolution, and restoration significantly transformed not only the Spanish government but also the global Spanish empire. The events of the revolution, and particularly the massacre of Spanish rebels on May 3, 1808 had profound effects on Goya, who had been in Madrid at the time and witnessed firsthand the carnage unleashed upon his countrymen by foreign aggressors. The two paintings are thus similar in their depictions of violent massacres within current revolutions.
Despite superficial similarities in the paintings’ subject matter, a closer comparison of the formal qualities of each paintings reveal that in composition, palette, use of light, and inclusion of details, Delacroix was bound by both traditional aesthetic and cultural stereotypes while Goya diverged sharply away from artistic tradition by focusing solely on the blunt reality of violent revolution and in doing so created the first true piece of modern art. Compositionally, the Massacre has often been criticized for being disarrayed. The figures are arranged haphazardly across the canvas, with the only structural distinction between the aggressor and the heap of victims being their height relative to the horizon. Some critics have remarked on the compositional similarities between the Massacre and Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (fig.3), which uses the heaping of tormented bodies in the context of the aftermath of a shipwreck. This imitation is especially apparent in the preliminary sketches done for Massacre. Delacroix attempts to transplant the composition of the Raft into an entirely different situation that demands something more than a motley clustering of bodies. The confusion within Massacre’s composition and its failure to distinguish clearly between the Greeks and the Turk are on some level a reflection of Delacroix’s personal disinterest in and basic lack of understanding of the Greek revolutionary cause. In addition to composition, Delacroix’ rendering of details within the painting also serves to undermine both the subject and the artist’s character. Delacroix’s figures, in their death and suffering, remain conventionally beautiful. His careful contour of musculature as well as clothing gives even decaying corpses an intrinsic beauty. Delacroix gives particular attention to ornamental details, such as the Ottoman’s turban and gleaming scimitar, and even his steed, which is rendered to appear more primitive than the gallant equine species typical of contemporary paintings featuring Western European subjects. Delacroix’s attempt to depict his Eastern subjects from the perspective of his Western upbringing is revealed in his reliance on stereotypes of Turks that translate into ingrained Orientalism. Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East-collectively misnamed as the Orient- have long been fantasized by Western European artists and writers with exotic allure. Underlying this often overgeneralized cultural stereotype, however, is a fundamentally wrong and patronizing attitude that objectifies the “East” and its inhabitants as primitive in comparison to Western society, which is developed, rational, and ultimately superior. There is thus an undertone of racism to Delacroix’s depiction and exaggeration of Oriental ornaments that lessen the painting’s ideological basis of support for the Greeks. In contrast to the elaborately clad Turkish horsemen are the fallen victims, men, women, and children, dead and dying, all of whom are partially clothed or entirely nude to reveal skilled drawn human anatomy. This stylized rendition, when examined more closely, gives way to eroticized fantasy. The corpse of a nude woman in the bottom right corner of the painting is enticingly beautiful, drawn to attract rather than to repel the viewer’s attention. Similarly, another pale and sinuous nude female body, being seized by the Turkish horseman, has all the characteristics of the canonically beautiful Greek maiden despite the scene being one of horror and rape. Some would attribute the artful renditions to the young Delacroix’s eagerness to showcase his talent and technique, but this type of stylization is not consistent throughout the painting. With darkened hues, the painting’s few male figures are depicted as sickly, degrade bodies, though still somewhat softened, but entirely without the eroticism applied to the female nudes. The Massacre eclipses the Greek man to highlight the erotic beauty of the Greek woman. The painting’s focus evades the masculine martial conflict typical of violent insurrections and instead lies in the sexual violation of the female figure. This eroticization of dying women also contributes to the overall passivity of the painting in which the victims become mere objects of sexual fantasy. Delacroix does not attempt to recreate the resistance and aggression that were the essence of a massacre of civilians. Instead, he sensualizes the violent domination of female victims and structures the picture to present a beautiful view of carnage. The almost static atmosphere created by the painting’s composition, combined with erotic rendering and Orientalist details, reveals Delacroix’s infatuation with aesthetic over realistic conflict or the nature of the Greeks’ resistance against the Ottomans.
Goya’s painting, on the other hand, is overflowing with antagonism. Its formal qualities, though not visually pleasing in many aspects, present strongly the artist’s personal anti-war sentiment regarding the event. The dynamic composition created using strong light and dark presents the fundamental conflict between the Spanish rebel to the left of the paintings and their French executioners to the immediate right. Goya’s distinct use of light, unlike the muted somber tones of the Massacre, thrusts the dying Spaniards into the viewer’s eye. The Third of May has no precedent; it does not try to imitate any compositional formula and is instead a pure outpour of the artist’s shrill horror at violence. Instead of cluttering the composition as Delacroix does to figures suggestively and to enhance visual appeal, Goya sacrifices pictorial artifice to portray unvarnished brutality. In addition to composition, the blunt rendering of individual figures also gives Goya’s Third of May the innovative vision that cannot be seen in Delacroix’s sexualized depiction of bodies. Goya is concerned, predominantly, with the realistic emotions inspired by violence. There is nothing of beauty or sublimity to be found in Goya’s piled corpses. The bodies on the lower left portion of the work have been disfigured to a degree that renders any mode of resurrection impossible. The main victim, clad in rags and with hands uplifted in entreaty, is bereft of aesthetic grace. With no attempt at softening the event’s brutality, Goya’s rendering of the man’s contorted face can in no way be described as visually pleasing. Many critics see the Third of May as a crucial cornerstone for 20th century Modernism. This in part stems from Goya’s brilliant transformation of Christian iconography. The central figure of the painting, distinguished as a poor labourer by his clothing, is symbolic of the crucified Christ. He is sacrificing himself for the good of his nation; his body is dramatically illuminated; his expression is full of anguish as he stretches his arms out in a plea; his right-hand bears the stigmata of the crucified Christ. This application of religious imagery to a dying peasant marks Goya as an artistic revolutionary. Historically, the image of Christ crucified has been used in paintings to portray the death of heroic martyrs. The man in Third of May, however, is far from a hero and is in many ways just as anonymous as his about-to-be killers. Goya’s use of religious symbolism to highlight the death of an insignificant man was not meant to display a hero perishing in battle but rather to reveal the human being slaughtered. In contrast to this poignant display of humanity is the line of executioners, who, mechanical and insect-like, seem to blur into one faceless, many-legged creature made of darkness. There is something mechanical, almost industrial, to Goya’s view of murder that would reveal itself in his more morbid drawings. As one can see, Goya’s renditions are not without stylization, but unlike Delacroix, who stylizes figures to enhance aesthetic and erotic appeal, Goya is focused on channelling through the full emotional impact of the event and the brutal reality of violent insurrections.
Though both artists were stylistically considered prominent Romantic painters at some point in their lives, the paintings themselves occupy nearly opposite ends of the Romantic spectrum in terms of revolutionary vision. The school of Romanticism, emerging at the dawn of the 19th century, has been closely associated with liberalism and radical political revolution. The most important quality of Romantic art and literature, however, is an emphasis on intense emotion as the source of aesthetic experience. Romantics even created new aesthetic categories such as the sublime and the beauty of nature in order to heighten the emotional emphasis. In this context, Delacroix’s Massacre is hardly a true piece of Romantic art. Though the subject is unique in that it is of a contemporary event, the emphasis lies in superficial aesthetic rather than emotional intensity. There is no direct conflict within the painting, only the aggressor exerting violence on his passive victims. This lack of heroic confrontation, though unusual and possibly divergent from convention, does not make up for the lack of emotional emphasis, a flaw at the painting’s core as a Romantic artwork. As one novelist and critic notes, the painting, without a heroic center, seems to be depicting the unfortunate consequences of a plague rather than a political uprising. Delacroix would in time become one of the greatest French Romantics, but with the completion of only his second major painting, he remains at this point in his career bound to his earlier academic training in Neo-classicism. The Massacre consists of Delacroix-esque Romanticism at its infancy, with its detached display of purposeless bodies scattered over an ordinary landscape. Delacroix stylizes his subject not to emphasize emotion but to enhance aesthetic.
In stark contrast to this absence of emotion is the poignant display of terror in Goya’s Third of May 1808, an iconic Romantic piece with a revolutionary vision that foreshadows Modernism. Stylized but without regard to conventional aesthetic, the Third of May derives its emotional power from the evident confrontation between a Spaniard about to be killed and the unforgiving line of French soldiers. What distinguishes this painting from those of other Romantics of its time, however, is the nature of the confrontation. There is no heroism in the frightened eyes of the Spaniard, only ruin and death. This depiction of a sort of anti-hero was not only uncommon but also revolutionary. The climactic moment before a slaughter captured in the painting echoes the intense horror of a revolution turned violent. With exception to the main figure, the Spanish rebels are painted not as dying martyrs but akin to animals slaughtered at a roadside. The despair and tragedy of the dying Spaniards, utterly unadorned as they are in Goya’s memory, give the full emotional punch that could not be found in Delacroix’s airbrushed corpses. Goya is himself a rebel, against conventional aesthetic as well as conventional concepts of heroism. In the pre-photographic era, Goya’s Third of May presents people with one of the few documentation of war’s atrocities. Over the next century, artists like Manet and Picasso continue to look back at the Third of May for inspiration. Goya’s style, in the Third of May, leaps into Modernist art of the 20th century in its rejection of conventional aesthetic, transformation of religious imagery, and re-imagination of violence to heighten the emotional impact on the viewer.
In addition to formal and stylistic differences of the two paintings, differences in perspective, experience, and motivation of the artists themselves distinguish Goya as a true revolutionary, ideologically and artistically, while Delacroix remains, at this stage of his life, a conventional imitator. Goya was sixty-two years old when the old regime in Spain collapsed at the hand of Napoleon. A popular painter of the royal court, Goya has already attained the status of one of the most acclaimed artists of his time. There was thus no need for him to distort the Third of May 1808 in such a way as to cater to the public eye. He painted to express his own powerful emotions regarding the event. Goya’s personal letters reveal him as a liberal with strong political ideas, an artist in the midst of revolution who used his pen and brush both to chronicle and to comment on the change and carnage that surrounded him. Goya’s recurrent battles with illnesses physical and mental tormented but also shaped his views as an artist. His free exploration of dark subject matter such as demonic imagery and fantasy nightmare enabled him to stray further from convention in the Third of May. Prior to beginning the Third of May, Goya has explored the subject of violence extensively in his etching series The Disasters of War. A seasoned artist with a wide range of repertoire and genuine interest in the atrocities of war, Goya is able to channel his personal passion into the painting of the Third of May, which has the full emotional charge of Romanticism but also signals a clear break from contemporary theories of art and heroism. Goya’s passion for his nation and his support for the revolutionary cause of his countrymen, enriched by his personal witness of the atrocities of war, are the sole impetus behind his painting. He is able to transcend, through the strength of his beliefs, the boundaries of the conventional aesthetic.
Delacroix, on the other hand, was merely an imitator, obsessed with the particular aesthetic of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and unwilling to compromise beauty for realism. Delacroix was an outsider to both the Greek Revolution and the Parisian art circle at the time of Massacre’s inception. A talented young man on the ascent to fame, Delacroix cleverly chose a topic for his painting that would garner the most public support. In a letter to his friend Raymond Soulier in 1821, Delacroix confessed his intention to paint a scene from the war between the Greeks and Ottomans in order to make a reputation for himself. Three years later, when Massacre was first displayed at the Salon, Delacroix entitled it "Scènes des massacres de Scio; familles grecques attendent la mort ou l'esclavage, etc." (Scenes of massacres at Chios; Greek families awaiting death or slavery, etc.). The careless “and other things” closing hints at Delacroix’s inherent indifference towards the Greek cause. As a foreigner observing the conflict from a “civilized” European perspective, Delacroix could not help projecting his ingrained Orientalist vision onto his work, and his attitude towards the Greek revolution is sympathetic at best and exploitive at worst. Delacroix’s vision of the Chios Massacre comes largely from his readings of biased French newspapers, which often exaggerated events in gross proportions to fuel the popular philhellenic sentiment of the time. Delacroix sees the Greek War of Independence through the distorted Orientalist lens of Western ideologues. His position relative to his subject is almost the exact opposite to that of Goya, who viewed the Napoleonic invasion of Spain as an infringement upon his own rights. To Delacroix, the war between the Greeks and Ottomans, however tragic, was an excellent opportunity for gaining popular support as he rode the sensationalized wave of philhellenism. The nearly universal support for the Greek cause during Delacroix’s formulation of the Massacre deprives the painting of its political edge and ideological focus. Delacroix’s motivation to paint Massacre stems, in addition to his pursuit of fame, from his psychological obsession with Theodore Gericault and his Raft of the Medusa (fig. 3), which removes any trace of real artistic revolution in his painting. A model for one of the nude figures in the Raft, Delacroix became entranced by Gericault’s style and technique. With Gericault’s death in early 1824, Delacroix took it onto himself to be the successor of Gericault’s spirit. The Massacre was part of Delacroix’s personal exploration of a vision executed and exhausted, an unoriginal copy of a precedent masterpiece. It attempts to but does not succeed entirely in imitating Gericault’s Raft, mainly due to the difference in subject matter but in part because of Delacroix’s basic disinterest in his painting’s supposed ideology. Thus, Delacroix’s motivation and inspiration for Massacre, combined with his questionable sympathy for the Greek War of Independence, make him an opportunistic imitator rather than an artistic revolutionary.
To conclude, the Massacre at Chios and the Third of May 1808, both 19th-century paintings of contemporary events, offer fundamentally different depictions of violent revolutions. Despite their superficial similarities in subject matter, analysis of both formal qualities and artists’ motivation reveal that while Delacroix’s Massacre is bound by conventions in its use Orientalism and eroticism to place aesthetic over reality, while Goya’s Third of May is almost the exact opposite in its violent break from conventional aesthetic to emphasize blunt reality over beauty. The Massacre at Chios and its complex arrangement of figures, though tainted in places by Delacroix’s petty and perverse motives, is wanting in neither technical skill nor superficial beauty. What it lacks are the genuine passion of the artist, the emotion of one who has seen death, and the undiluted horrors of war, all of which are executed masterfully by Goya. The Third of May, with its dramatic emphasis on antagonism and stylized reality, and is a truly revolutionary artwork. In the end, true art is not about a beautiful view, but what it says about the artist, what it does to the viewer.
Notes and Bibliography
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