Although Alexandre-Marie Colin never attained the celebrity status of his more famous contemporaries such as Delacroix and Girodet, he remains a pivotal figure in the Romantic painting movement in early 19th Century France. Born in Paris in 1798, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the age of fifteen as a pupil of Girodet. A frequent participant at the yearly Salon, he was honored with a first class medal in 1840. While relatively little is known about his life, he was a prolific painter. From portraiture to landscape, Colin explored a wide range of subject matter, yet his oeuvre is particularly noted for subjects inspired from history and literature.
The long and drawn-out Greek struggle for Independence against Ottoman rule (1821-32) strongly resonated with the artists, writers and intellectuals throughout Europe. The response from the artistic community in France was especially strong particularly among the first generation of French Romantic painters which included Colin and a circle of Romantic painters, Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Géricault and Richard-Parkes Bonington. The Greek-Turkish conflict symbolized not only a struggle for nationalism, already a highly charged issue during the time, but an East-West struggle that pitted the morality of Greece, once the cradle of civilization, against the barbarism of the Ottoman Empire.
The writings of Lord Byron were particularly in vogue in France in the 1820's and 30's. His passionate involvement with the Greek freedom fighters and his tragic death at Missolonghi in April of 1824 "martyrized" him in the eyes of the Romantics. Of all Byron's Turkish Tales, no poem had more impact on French artists as the The Giaour. First published in 1813, Colin would have known the work through Amédée Pichot's translation, widely distributed in France. The Giaour, a Venetian renegade in the service of the Turk Hassan, attempts to elope with one of Hassan's wives, Leila. When their plans are discovered, Leila is drowned on Hassan's orders and the Giaour eventually kills Hassan as an act of revenge. Not surprisingly, the melodrama of the story and its colorful characters provided a rich visual sourcebook that inspired a generation of artists sympathetic to the Greek cause.
Often confused with the work exhibited at the 1831 Salon as Le Giaour; sujet de Lord Byron, the present work is now confirmed as the painting Colin debuted in 1826 under the title of Le Giaour at the first of two fund-raising exhibitions at Galerie Lebrun, Au Profit des Grecs. Widely regarded as Colin's most accomplished work, Le Giaour not only embodies all the drama and emotional fervor characteristic of early Romantic painting, but within the considerable body of Byronic subject matter, it remains one of the most ambitious representations of a Byronic hero. Painted in 1826, at the height of French-Panhellenic sentiment, the present work stands, as one scholar notes, as "a further example of the elan of the 1820's when so many artists produced work they were never again to surpass" (Johannides, op.cit., p. 496).
Against the backdrop of a dramatic cloud-filled sky and war-torn landscape, the Giaour stands triumphant over the lifeless body of Hassan sprawled beneath his feet. Holding a blood-stained sword in his right hand, he seems posed to deal the final blow. Particularly beautiful atmospheric effects are achieved from the sweeping movement of the storm clouds that echo the atrocities on the battlefield. The rearing black horse, reminiscent of the wild stallions that so fascinated Gericault, creates a strong diagonal across the picture plane. The popularity of the present work is testified to by existence of another smaller version. Le Giaour, sujet tire de Byron, exhibited at the Salon of 1831 under no. 375 is similar in composition and known only through a line engraving executed in 1833 (fig. 1). Horace Vernet capitalized on Colin's composition in a later work Le Giaour, vainqueur d'Hassan (fig. 2) (sold Christie's, London, 29 June 1999, lot 3).
The revolutionary climate in Greece united artists on a political front and the resulting comradship fostered group efforts such as the ground breaking Galerie Lebrun show. If on a political level "the Greek exhibitiion" was an important venue in its aim to promote awareness and financial support for the cause, on an artistic level, it became, in the absence of a Salon, "the principal forum for the developments in French Painting since 1845" (Noon, op. cit., p. 54). For nearly a decade Hellenic inspired subjects were prominently featured in exhibitions at the Musée Colbert and Cambrai. Colin would contribute more works to the show including Episode de la Guerre Actuelle en Grecque, a larger battle scene presented in reportage style, commonly mistaken for the present work and now in a private collection (see Burlington Magazine, June 1984, p. 373). Its presence at the exhibition is significant and Patrick Noon even suggests that Colin intended the work as a pendant to Le Giaour.
Delacroix's contribution to French painting was immense and his relationship with Colin during these years is only now being more fully explored. Often drawing upon the wealth of Bryonic imagery widely circulated through prints, he devoted no less than six paintings and at least one lithograph to the theme of the Giaour (see The Giaour Contemplating the Death of Hassan, 1828-30 (Johnson, 1981, no. 138) and The Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha, 1826, (Johnson, 1981, no. 114; Art Institute of Chicago). A few years earlier, Théodore Géricault, a devote admirer of Byron, was exploring Byronic themes as testified to by his atmospheric watercolor Le Giaour, 1822-23 (fig. 3).
In the 1820's, Colin was traveling and working closely with Delacroix and, as Patrick Noon points out, may even have been sharing a studio together with Delacroix and Bonington. The stylistic affinities in their work and similarity in subjects alone are enough to affirm that Delacroix was a guiding force and a notable influence on Colin's work. The swift movement of Delacroix's brush is imbued with an emotional intensity and complexity that is unrivaled. As shown in the present work, Colin seeks to imitate his fluid brushwork as shown in the beautiful intensely colored passages of the Giaour's flowing blue cape and red headscarf.
Colin never personally visited Greece, thus his work is entirely a production of the studio. Yet from his sensitive rendering of the costume from the leg armour and white kilt to the girdle with pistols and swords, it is evident that he had access to traditional costume of the day. Colin's figure of the Giaour is likely based on sketches of Count Demitri de Palatinous, a wealthy Greek refugeé who passed though Delacroix's studio in the winter of 1825. Graphite sketches by Colin of a similar figure in revolutionary costume (see Shepard Gallery, Non-dissenters, exh. cat., 1976) indicates that he was most probably present in the studio during the various sittings.
The present work shares even more striking compositional similarities with Delacroix's Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (fig. 4). Painted the same year shortly after the Greek army's crushing defeat at Missolonghi, the work was exhibited at the second show at Galerie Lebrun and thus slightly post-dates Colin's work. While markedly different in size, they are similar in many respects, suggesting the possibility that Delacroix was drawing heavily upon Colin's composition. As in Le Giaour, Delacroix's model dominates the foreground, behind her a ruined wasteland. Undeniably, both paintings, on a psychological level, are exploited for their propoganda value - the position of both their hands remains open, their eyes look imploring to the sky. For the Giaour, it symbolizes a call for vengence - for Delacroix's Greece, a promise one day, to rise victorious.
The present work has been requested for the upcoming exhibition Romantic Painting in England and France, c. 1820-1840, to be held in 2003 at the Tate Britain, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
(fig. 1) After Alexandre Colin, Le Giaour contemplant Hassan, engraving, 1833.
(fig. 2) Horace Vernet, Le Giaour, vainqueur d'Hassan, Private Collection.
(fig. 3) Théodore Géricault, Le Giaour, 1822-23, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum.
(fig. 4) Eugène Delacroix, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux.