This picture contains a wealth of detail faithful to the second canto of Lord Byron's epic satire Don Juan, written between 1819 and 1823. It shows Don Juan in a cave on the coastline of 'one of the wild and smaller Cyclades' islands. The scene depicts the moment when Juan is rescued after having been shipwrecked and brought to the cave by Haidee, the beautiful seventeen year old daughter of the pirate living on the island. As the detail in the foreground of the picture illustrates, Haidee and her companion Zoe have 'made a fire' and prepared 'eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey,/With Scio wine' and 'oysters too' to revive Juan. The painting shows 'the languid Juan' as 'he raised his head upon his elbow.' The women have 'dress'd him ... like a Turk, Or Greek ... with a clean shirt, and very spacious breeches'. Colin has represented a tender scene where the young people are beginning to fall in love and 'in every look [Haidee] saw exprest A world of words'.
Alexandre Marie Colin lived and worked in Paris, exhibiting anually at the Salon between 1819 and his death in 1873. He specialised in painting historical and literary genre scenes, often in costume. He has been called 'one of the forgotten figures of French Romanticism, and a pioneer in [the] treatment of literary subject matter, especially from English sources' (P. Joannides, 'Colin, Delacroix, Byron and the Greek War of Independence', The Burlington Magazine, v.125 (August 1983), pp. 495-500). Colin exhibited several pictures in the 1820s inspired by and accompanied with text from Byron's work. He exhibited Le Giaour (fig. 1) at the first of two Expositions au profit des Gréecs at the Galerie Lebrun in 1826 with a commentary in the livret saying 'Sujet tiré de Lord Byron' (sold Christie's, New York, October 31, 2001 for $534,000). His Episode de la guerre actuelle en Gréece was also shown with text from Lord Byron (P. Joannides, op. cit.).
The setting of this painting on a Greek island had a political as well as a romantic significance. The Greek War for independence from Turkey was fought from 1821 to 1932 and was supported by the liberal and artistic communities of western Europe. These included philhellenes such as Lord Byron; aristocratic young men, recipients of a classical education, who saw themselves as the inheritors of a glorious civilisation and were willing to fight to liberate Europe. Byron's poems heightened the emotional intensity of the support for Greece. The impact and popularity of his poems should not be underestimated. Byron displays his political allegiance to the Greeks in Don Juan:
'The Mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea
And musing there an hour alone
I dreamed that Greece might still be free.' (Canto 3, verse 86).
Byron went to Greece in 1823, where he assisted physically and financially in the Greek War for Independence. He died at Missolonghi in 1824 and his death did even more to increase European sympathy for the Greek cause. The impact of Byron as Don Juan with Haidee would have been greatly augmented by sympathy towards Byron and his intimate connection to the Greek War of Independence.