The Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha, painted by Delacroix in 1835, is inspired by passage from Byron’s Oriental tales published in 1814 under the title The Giaour, a Fragment of a Turkish Tale.

The story is about the ill-fated love affair between a Venetian, the Giaour - a term used by Muslims to refer to an adulterer - and a slave, Leila, who belonged to the seraglio of Hassan, the military leader of a Turkish province. Leila, who has failed to show the Pasha Hassan the loyalty she owes him, is thrown into the sea. Her lover, the Giaour, avenges her by killing Hassan.

Through his independent and intrepid life as well as his literary works that speak to the heart and the imagination, Byron embodied the Romantic hero par excellence. His travels in the Islamicised countries of the Mediterranean opened the doors of the Orient to Delacroix. The poet died in 1824, aged 36, near Missolonghi, where he was fighting against Turkish domination on the side of the Greeks.

Hassan’s death deliberately echoes the Greek struggle for independence, supported by France, England and Russia from 1820 to 1830. Whereas Byron’s poem describes two troops filled with the same fury, Delacroix chose to isolate the two rivals to represent them in a duel which is faithful to the story in its violence. Delacroix also drew on his memories of travelling in Morocco. The details of the costumes and harnesses he kept in his sketchbooks were used in the combat scene to emphasise the richness of his red and gold palette. Delacroix excelled at depicting a hand-to-hand fight of great visual intensity, where man and animal are closely linked.

I. C.

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