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The Massacre of the Abencerrages

Georges Clairin

(1843 - 1919) | D.875.1

Date : 1874 | Medium : Oil on canvas

Between 1869 and 1870, Georges Clairin made a journey to Morocco with his friend Henri Regnault. He was a great traveller throughout his life: Italy, Spain, Algeria and Egypt were all to inspire numerous narrative scenes and picturesque landscapes. Clairin also successfully tried his hand at other genres. His portraits of Sarah Bernhardt are well-known; he also collaborated on sets for the Paris Opera and on a large number of hotels, theatres and châteaux, and produced several large compositions depicting the so-called ‘Orient of the Romantics’.

The Rouen painting is one of these. Its subject is taken from Chateaubriand's Aventures du dernier Abencérage (1826): Boabdil, the last king of Granada, massacres the rival tribe of the  Abencerrages in a general bloodbath that entered into legend. In the Hall of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra, it was said that the fountain flowed not with water but with blood.

The tragedy is shown here in all its cruelty, with an attention to detail in the shockingly realistic severed heads, and a monumentality in the figures, who impress themselves on the viewer's gaze, particularly in the foreground. A cruelty emphasised by the sense of irony that emanates from the scene, through the gracefully curved figures seeming to dance around the vertical axis of the king standing tall in the centre, evoking a kind of ballet, while the king's calm, composed attitude as he leans lightly on the edge of the fountain, his head turned aside, shows that he is indifferent to the massacre – and even finds the horrific sight laughable, as indicated by his mocking smile and the severed head he holds out to the children, eager to play with it.