Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) — is he not the most fascinating of all painters, past or present? Extraordinarily well connected, exquisitely socially poised, he was an intimate friend of Hector Berlioz, Fréderic Chopin, and George Sand, while the greatest contemporary poet, Charles Baudelaire, passionately championed him.
Thanks in part, it seems, to the support from his unacknowledged biological father, Talleyrand (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord), the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Talleyrand’s successors, his work, though often highly controversial, almost never failed to attract official support. When very young, he was one of the models for the figures in “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19), the early masterpiece of Théodore Géricault, who was a friend. A couple of years later, Delacroix’s own “The Barque of Dante“ (1822), which was a sensation at the Salon, was purchased by the state.
In 1825, Delacroix visited England, which engendered his lifelong enthusiasm for Byron and Shakespeare. And then in 1832, he traveled to Spain and North Africa, as part of a diplomatic mission to Morocco, a trip that inspired some of his best visual art. His Journal is perhaps the fullest and most vivid literary document produced by any painter; the older English-language edition has a remarkable lengthy introduction by Robert Motherwell. And his published letters reveal how intensely he valued friendship. His “Self-Portrait in a Green Vest” (1837) reveals a strikingly handsome, entirely self-confident man. No other painter from anywhere was as privileged and renowned from early on – and hardly anyone had so consistently successful a career.
In his essay “The life and work of Eugène Delacroix” (1863) Baudelaire asks: “What role did he come into this world to play, and what duty to perform?” To answer that question we need to identify the way that Delacroix’s career straddles a decisive transitional moment in French history. A political transition: Born nine years after the start of the French Revolution, he lived to see the 1851 coup in which Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, was crowned as emperor. Then just seven years after his death came the Commune of 1870 and the birth of the Third Republic, which finally abolished the French monarchy.
In art’s history, too, this was a time of transition. The career of Delacroix’s most important immediate predecessor, Jacques-Louis David’s (1748-1825), was launched during the Old Regime. And the two greatest French painters coming immediately after Delacroix, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883), who surely are modernists, both had some contact with him. Courbet’s early work puzzled Delacroix; and the young Manet copied one of Delacroix’s paintings. But Delacroix came from a different visual culture. Indeed, his famous “Liberty Leading the People” (1830) gives a very misleading picture of his politics — unlike Courbet, he was a reactionary. And unlike either Courbet or Manet, although he himself was not religious, he painted many Christian subjects.
Like Delacroix, Baudelaire too was a transitional figure. His greatest essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) argues that the artist needs to find contemporary subjects; here he anticipates Manet (and the Impressionists). Delacroix, however, had no interest in the contemporary political subjects of Courbet or the Parisian themes of Impressionist painting. Apart from his scenes of North Africa, he never showed modern life. The great “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1634) and “The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage” (1856) do depict the contemporary Islamic world. His “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” (1826) was inspired more by his love for Byron’s role in the struggle for Greek Independence rather than a position of his own.
And yet, he is not a traditional literary or history painter — for what old master would conceive of anything like his various images after Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or his “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1845-46), represented in the exhibition Delacroix at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by his small copy after the famous enormous work in the Louvre? Indeed, apart perhaps from Caravaggio, what old master could have conceived of compositions like his Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (1836), in which two woman furtively remove arrows from the saint’s sprawled dead body, or Christ on the Cross (1835), in which the voluptuous Mary Magdalene, clad in red and prone passionately on the ground below, stares upward at Christ?
A number of Delacroix’s best-known paintings were apparently too large to be borrowed — and of course those in Parisian churches or public buildings, including the Louvre ceiling, Apollo Slays the Python (1860), a sketch of which is in this exhibition, cannot be moved. But here, with more than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, and manuscripts, with the exhibition complimented by more than 100 additional works on paper from the Karen B. Cohen collection (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix), there’s certainly sufficient visual material to gain an adequate view of his achievement, and locate his place in the history of art.
A mere listing of some of these subjects is exhilarating. His early portrait “Baron Schwiter (Louis Auguste Schwiter (1805-1889)” (1826-7) gives a note-perfect image of a Romantic dandy. “Collision of Arab Horsemen” (1833-34) is a stunning Western depiction of passionate Islamic culture, Orientalism triumphant. The great “Ovid among the Scythians” (1859), with the poet reclining amidst the barbarians at the Black Sea, is an extraordinarily original vision of what exile means. “Lion Hunt (fragment)” (1855) shows how much Delacroix learnt from Peter Paul Rubens.
And how extraordinary are the results when he turns his hand to still life painting. In the amazing “Basket of Flowers” (1848-49), which is set in a landscape, look at how these flowers tumble towards you. As for the drawings, they reveal how hard Delacroix worked — and how closely he studied the most varied sources. We see early academic nudes; a caricature of Rossini with his three best-known operatic characters; studies after Cruikshank, Gericault, Gillray, and Rubens; studies of works by Raphael and Veronese; scenes illustrating Goethe’s Faust; Norman churches and landscapes; tigers from the Paris zoo; studies of classical sculpture; and, of course, many luscious North African scenes.
What I’ve long dreamt of, but rarely found at major exhibitions like this are catalogues that offer an accessible commentary. What, alas, I usually find are heavy, posh, beautifully illustrated academic publications, souvenirs that I suspect aren’t much read by anyone but reviewers and professors. The catalogue for Delacroix, presenting both the paintings on exhibition and many of his other works, is an unfocused, bookish summary of the literature; the lighter, cheaper Devotion to Drawing catalogue is mercifully brief. But apart from Michèle Hannoosh, who contributes a luminous short essay about the Journal (which she has edited), none of these scholars write with Baudelairian enthusiasm. I grant that when Baudelaire writes about Delacroix, who was his favorite painter, he praises him in terms that maybe are a little too enthusiastic:
Delacroix is the most suggestive of all painters ; he is the painter whose works, even when chosen from among his secondary and inferior productions, set one thinking the most and summon to the memory the greatest number of poetic thoughts and sentiments which, although once known, one had believed to be for ever buried in the dark night of the past.
He describes their conversations in terms that misleadingly suggest they were intimate friends. But when he quotes Delacroix advising another artist — “If you have not sufficient skill to make a sketch of a man throwing himself out of a window, in the time that it takes him to fall from the fourth floor to the ground, you will never be capable of producing great machines” — he conveys a startlingly accurate perspective on Delacroix’s essential greatness.
If you want a suggestive perspective on these two great exhibitions, buy his Journal or reread Baudelaire’s incandescent memorial essay. That commentary will not satisfy modern scholars, but he does, I think, ask the right questions. The last great artist who was not a modernist, Delacroix synthesized very complex visual and verbal traditions in stunning works that, by summarizing the old master European worldview, open the way to modernism. Political and artistic transitions are tricky to deal with — but his handling of this transition was exemplary.
Author’s note: I quote Baudelaire from The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London, 1964), the translation by Jonathan Mayne; my own fuller account of these themes is High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernism (University Park and London, 1996).
Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 12; Delacroix continues there through January 6, 2019.