LONDON — In 2015 the National Gallery enjoyed one of its greatest blockbusters with Goya: The Portraits, a curatorial triumph thanks in large part to its securing a staggering number of the artist’s own works. What a shame, then, that its follow-up, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, conversely suffers from too few of Delacroix’s works and far too much of the “modern art.” A key figure in the Romantic movement, Delacroix represents a pivotal moment in Western painting: he introduced a radically expressive use of color and movement, representing, it’s argued, the birth of modernism and inspiring subsequent artists as diverse as Renoir, van Gogh, Matisse, and Kandinsky. Certainly, there’s a case to be made that Delacroix’s embrace of greater painterly expression filtered through to these other practitioners; however, curator Christopher Riopelle’s attempt to prove it through direct, painting-to-painting comparison serves only to distract from this aim.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this method; art historical studies often rely heavily on it to illustrate differences or similarities. Yet in an exhibition of this scale, the evidence indicating Delacroix’s influence within each given example needs to be more convincing. We know for certain that his work reached the eyes of a generation of Impressionists thanks to a posthumous sale in 1864, and that Cézanne was apparently “obsessed” with him. But to then argue that Cézanne’s 1877 “The Eternal Feminine” “may have been influenced” by Delacroix’s “Death Of Sardanapalus” (1827), which hangs nearby, only ends up highlighting the two paintings’ dissimilarity. Both hinge upon the motif of a woman draped across a bedspread and surrounded by scattered bodies, yet by focusing primarily on this compositional similarity, the show suggests that Cézanne simply pinched the idea and adapted it for his own ends. The comparison undermines its own purpose, in that the influence here comes off as seeming superficial, while the tones of the two paintings are at odds: Delacroix’s figures are caught in a scene of turmoil, while Cézanne’s worship the central woman. This messy comparison draws attention away from Delacroix’s more subtle influence upon Cézanne, namely a looseness of brushwork and the use of unadulterated color, a departure from the methods of representational painting of his time.
This choosing of comparative works based on their subject or composition continues to hinder our understanding of Delacroix’s influence on subsequent artists. A case in point is a room purporting that a Delacroix still life of flowers in a basket, which was displayed several times at the Paris Salon and therefore enjoyed significant exposure, is directly, stylistically linked to paintings of flowers by Courbet, Redon, Bazille, van Gogh, and Renoir. In fact, there’s little convincing likeness among them other than what they depict, and it’s not enough to simply declare that Delacroix’s dynamism inspired the other painters within their own styles. (Though it is pleasant to see a lesser-known van Gogh still life of flowers in a vase.)
A major section of the show focuses on Orientalism, though nothing suggests that Delacroix was unique or pioneering in this regard. We’re told that Renoir’s witnessing of a North African scene, recorded in “Arab Festival” (1881), “may well have reminded [him] of” Delacroix’s “Les Convulsionnaires de Tanger” (1837), shown nearby. But what are we meant to conclude from this suggestion? It doesn’t instruct us where the influence lies. Again, perhaps, there’s a compositional commonality, yet this is meaningless considering the popularity for painting such scenes at the time. Meanwhile, Cézanne appears again with an 1898 nude whose “pose is borrowed from Delacroix.” The caption doesn’t say which one, but the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s press release for the show (the institution partnered with the National Gallery on the exhibition) explains that Cézanne copied Delacroix’s “The Morning Toilet” (1850) after it was exhibited in an 1885 retrospective in Paris. The National shoots itself in the foot by excluding this information, and one wonders where else such vital historic evidence is omitted.
The exhibition is more successful when it focuses on stylistic influence; Delacroix was considered a pioneer because his painterly approach departed from the Romantic movement’s slavish adherence to realism, using pure color — rather than composition — to communicate emotional and spiritual content. For once, there is convincing evidence of this in a sequence examining Delacroix’s religious works. His “Christ on the Sea of Galilee” (1853) was seen at an auction in 1886 by van Gogh, who noted the lemon color of Christ’s halo and said that Delacroix “speaks in a symbolic language through colour itself.” Indeed, his saturated blue hues and rich flesh tones here break with the naturalism vital to Romanticism and embody the crucial relationship to color that characterizes van Gogh and Impressionism. The entire point of the exhibition is made with this one successful link.
At the beginning of the show, wall text explains that Delacroix broke with the traditional methods of drawing in preparation for painting, instead favoring a more expressive and impassioned attitude to composing a piece; at that point, the ratio of Delacroix to supporting artists is one-to-one. By the end of the exhibition, the through line of modernizing technique is lost and Delacroix has been nearly abandoned in favor of Impressionist examples. So swamped is he that his paintings are denoted by a red band on their wall texts, to help viewers pick them out. With the appearance of a Kandinsky — of course defined by the principle of color’s dominance over composition and painterly style — the show simply assumes you are convinced that Delacroix is behind it.
There is a case to be made that the spiritual mentality of expression through color was Delacroix’s defining contribution to modernism; however, trying to prove it by finding direct visual quotations between his and subsequent works cripples the communication of this idea, giving confusing credence to small instances of compositional similarity. I saw this show twice, and both times overheard viewers questioning how any of this was linked to Delacroix. I suspect the extreme imbalance of Impressionist work is a symptom of not having enough significant loans: none of Delacroix’s major known works are present. This is a shame, as a much-deserved study in actuality does him no favors.
Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) through May 22.