Laura Freeman examines the brilliance and bravado of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings including the Massacre at Chios an extraordinary recreation of one of the most appalling episodes in human history.

The Massacre at Chios (1824) by Eugene Delacroix (Photographed by Peter Horree / Alamy)

The Massacre at Chios (1824) by Eugene Delacroix (Photographed by Peter Horree / Alamy)

The French word désarroi has no exact equivalent in English. It describes a deep moral turmoil, despair and disorder of the senses. It’s the feeling summoned by the great paintings of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), who is celebrated in a spectacular retrospective at the Louvre.

His heroes were Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lord Byron and Goethe’s sorrowful young Werther. ‘He waxes desperate with imagination,’ says Horatio of Hamlet in his wild, ungovernable madness – so, too, does Delacroix as he conjures hells and massacres, Golgothas and fatal last stands.

From the moment Delacroix made his debut, exhibiting The Barque of Dante at the Salon in 1822, he was a showman. He is pyrotechnic and panoramic. More is always more. More soldiers, more slave girls, more souls of the damned, clinging to the bows of Dante’s boat, threatening to overturn it. He paints with rapid, smouldering, bonfire brushwork. Flicks, arabesques and darts convey urgency of expression. His art is an exhilarating, mount-the-barricades, all-muskets-blazing display of brilliance and bravado.

His first wish had been to be a writer. Instead, Eugène, son of Charles Delacroix, Minister Plenipotentiary to the Hague, entered the studio of Pierre Guérin and, when he was 18, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Théodore Géricault was a fellow student and it was Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) that would give Delacroix the theme for his Barque of Dante. Although not a poet or a playwright, Delacroix became a storyteller in paint: ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood.’ For lightest word, read his deftest touch with a brush.

One of the most harrowing, most freezing tales Delacroix tells is The Massacre at Chios (1824): the killing and abduction of the entire Greek population of the island of Chios by the Turks. Only 900 of 90,000 inhabitants escaped death or slavery.

What may seem to the viewer excessive or luridly sensational, such as the infant vainly suckling at the breast of his murdered mother – fake news, perhaps, playing on our sense of pathos – was based on eyewitness accounts.

The events of the Greek War of Independence (1821–32) seemed to Delacroix like passages from Dante’s Inferno. He returned to the Divine Comedy as he painted and wrote in his journal: ‘O smile of the dying… embraces of despair.’

The spectacle of his paintings is extraordinary, not least in his most famous work: the 1830 Liberty Leading the People. He looked to the massiness of Rubens. The brooding shadows of Caravaggio. The terribilità – awe-inspiring strength – of Michelangelo. To these, Delacroix brings his own high, flushing, rush-of-blood-to-the-head colours.

Liberty Leading the People (La Liberte guidant le peuple) by Eugene Delacroix, oil on canvas, 1830

Liberty Leading the People (La Liberte guidant le peuple) by Eugene Delacroix, oil on canvas, 1830

Delacroix was uneasy about the label ‘Romantic’. ‘If by romanticism,’ he said, ‘they mean the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my effort to get away from the types eternally copied in the schools, my dislike of academic recipes, then I admit that not only am I romantic, but also that I have been one since I was 15.’

‘Delacroix (1798–1863)’ is at the Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, 75001, Paris, until July 23 – www.louvre.fr/en