“You are the Victor Hugo of painting.” “No, you are wrong, Monsieur, I am a pure classicist.”
—Delacroix to an admirer, 1840
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
—T. S. Eliot, 1919
One hundred odd pages into The Development of Modern Art (1908), the great German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe observes that “to write adequately about Delacroix would be to relate the whole history of modern art.” The rest of that magisterial work can be read as an effort to make good on the claim. The more one comes to know Delacroix, the more apposite Meier-Graefe’s observation seems. And the more exacting. Delacroix stands like a colossus at the outset of modern art, an ineluctable resource without which van Gogh and the Impressionists, Cézanne, Degas, and Matisse suddenly become unimaginable. And yet Delacroix was far from regarding himself as a bold pioneer. “All the great problems of art,” he wrote when he was nearing fifty, “were solved in the sixteenth century.” About the passion for novelty—sometimes taken to be the very essence of modern art—he could be particularly scathing: “The new,” he insisted, “is very ancient, one may even say that it is always the most ancient thing there is.”
In fact, Eugène Delacroix is the despair of neat aesthetic categories.
In fact, Eugène Delacroix is the despair of neat aesthetic categories. Textbooks tell us that he was Romanticism incarnate—“the foremost Neo-Baroque Romantic painter,” in the words of one—and they have plenty of evidence on their side. Who but an arch Romantic could have painted The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, Musée du Louvre), that Byronic homage to decadent Orientalism? The manner—Rubens with a high fever—is as startling as the matter: a doomed, sybaritic king cruelly savoring from his couch of luxury the hasty destruction of all he possesses. And who but a Romantic could have painted Liberty Leading the People (1830, Musée du Louvre), that vote of solidarity with the principles of the July Revolution and, by implication, with the Revolution of 1789? This was the Delacroix (or one of them, anyway) who bewitched Baudelaire and unsettled Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche compared Delacroix to his idol-turned-nemesis, Richard Wagner. Both, Nietzsche wrote, were great discoverers in the realm of the sublime, also of the ugly and gruesome, and still greater discoverers concerning effects, . . . virtuosos through and through, with uncanny access to everything that seduces, allures, compels, overthrows; born enemies of logic and straight lines, lusting after the foreign, the exotic, the tremendous, the crooked, the self-contradictory.
Nietzsche spoke as one who knew the seduction, the allurement, the compulsion firsthand. His disapproval was an acknowledgment of potency as well as a warning label. The precincts of extremity that he sent bulletins about were dangerous, but they continued to beckon—were dangerous because they continued to beckon. In Art in Crisis (1958), the German art historian Hans Sedlmayr, comparing Delacroix to Wagner and to the architect Gottfried Semper, made a similar point: “In Delacroix, we can already see that curious affection for the Oriental which is a mark of that epoch. It is not the Orient as we think of it today. There was for Delacroix and his contemporaries nothing passive or lethargic about it. . . . The Orient to the painters of the forties was luxuriant, sensual and voluptuous, a place of lowering passion and heat.”
Delacroix would have been surprised, to say the least, by all this: the accusations of virtiginous self-contradiction no less than the evocations of “lowering passion and heat.” “The so-called geniuses that we see today,” he wrote in 1855,
full of ridiculous affection and marked by bad taste as much as by pretension, are beclouded in whatever ideas they possess; even in their personal conduct they continue the bizarre manner which they look on as a sign of talent; . . . The great genius is simply a being of a more highly reasonable order.
The comparison with Wagner would have struck him as particularly odd. For Delacroix, “real superiority . . . admits no eccentricity.” Wagner seemed to him—as to many others—to represent the apotheosis of eccentricity. His own first impressions of the composer, recorded in his journal (perhaps the greatest literary testament any painter has left),1 begin to suggest how extravagant is what we might call the Orientalist-Wagnerian view of Delacroix:
This Wagner wants to be an innovator; he thinks that he has reached the truth; he suppresses a great many of the conventions of music, believing that conventions are not founded on necessary laws. He is a democrat; he also writes books about the happiness of humanity, books that are absurd.
Delacroix once defined “the classical” as “that which is suited to serve as a model.” As for the opposition between classical and Romantic approaches to art, he observed that “a good many artists imagine they are classical because they are cold; similarly there are some who believe they have warmth because they are called Romantic. The true warmth is that which consists in moving the onlooker.” One suspects that being identified as “Romantic” was less irritating to Delacroix than discovering that the commendation “classical” was bestowed upon his great artistic antipode, Ingres (1780–1867). Ingres did his best to avoid mentioning Delacroix’s name in public; in his writings he tended to refer to his younger rival as “the apostle of ugliness.” For his part, Delacroix dismissed Ingres’s pretentions to classical perfection as fake: “I prefer,” he wrote, “David to this mixture of antiquity with a bastard Raphaelism.”
Delacroix once defined “the classical” as “that which is suited to serve as a model.”
It is a pity that Baudelaire did not have the opportunity to read Delacroix’s journal. The poet was one of Delacroix’s earliest, most articulate, and most steadfast enthusiasts. And although he recognized the complex nature of Delacroix’s art—“passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to seek the means to express passion in the manner most visible”—Baudelaire probably did more than anyone to solidify the image of Delacroix as a kind of Romantic icon. He wrote about the painter’s work numerous times, beginning with a notice of the Salon of 1845 and ending, in 1864, the year after Delacroix’s death, with a long and appreciative obituary. Baudelaire did not go in for understatement. Already in 1845 he had concluded that Delacroix was “decidedly the most original painter of ancient or modern times.” Delacroix’s audacious painterly technique—his startling color; the way he, like Rubens and Géricault, exaggerated certain proportions for effect—was part of what attracted Baudelaire. But what really captivated the poet was Delacroix’s conjugation of exotic, hitherto incommunicable emotional tones: “a divine opium for mortal hearts.” Never mind that, from the beginning, Delacroix’s oeuvre had included works of chaste and brooding seriousness—at the 1827 Salon, for example, one could see the somber The Agony in the Garden as well as Sardanapalus. For Baudelaire, Delacroix was primarily a “fleur de mal,” a daring spiritual “beacon” unencumbered by shopworn moral or artistic conventions. Thus he occupies—alongside Rubens, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Goya, and (a startling addition) Watteau--an honored place in “Les Phares,” Baudelaire’s poetic catalogue of artistic heroes:
Delacroix, lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges,
Ombragé par un bois de sapins toujours vert,
Où, sous un ciel chagrin, des fanfares étranges
Passent, comme un soupir étouffé de Weber;
Ces malédictions, ces blasphèmes, ces plaintes,
Ces extases, ces cris, ces pleurs, ces Te Deum,
Sont un écho redit par mille labyrinthes;
C’est pour les coeurs mortels un divin opium!
Delacroix must surely have been grateful for Baudelaire’s constant attentions. Nevertheless, he maintained a certain reserve when it came to the poet and his enthusiasms. Baudelaire is mentioned only a few times—and then only in passing—in the journal, which reveals a sensibility far more steady and far more sober than Baudelaire’s evil angels, strange fanfares, and assorted tears, sighs, and blasphemies can accommodate.
It is one of the many merits of “Delacroix: The Late Work”2 that it definitively complicates the received view of Delacroix as a Romantic archetype. The curators of the exhibition, which was organized to coincide with the bicentennial of the painter’s birth, are no doubt right that “passion . . . will ever be at the heart of any discussion” of Delacroix’s work. But by focusing on the last thirteen years (1850–63) of his immensely prolific career (which all told yielded a thousand oil paintings, two thousand watercolors, and nearly a thousand drawings), the exhibition invites us to rethink the nature of Delacroix’s achievement. Above all, it has the effect of reasserting the place of deliberation, conscience, and aesthetic delicacy—the elements of mind and culture—in the appreciation of his art.
Another way of putting this is to say that if Delacroix was a Romantic, he was a Romantic in flight from the excesses of Romanticism: a distinctively modern type of the species. There was much about Delacroix’s family situation to encourage this amalgam of passion and reticence, exuberance and unfathomable reserve. Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was born in a small town near Paris on April 1798—year 6 according to the Revolutionary calendar, which was then still in force. He was, by fourteen years, the youngest of four children. The official entry at the mairie duly lists Charles Delacroix and Victoire Oeben—who was seventeen years younger than her husband—as the parents. There have, however, always been doubts about Delacroix’s paternity. Charles, an ardent republican who had been a regicide member of the Convention, enjoyed a distinguished political career. His health, at least in his later years, was poor. By August 1797, when he was posted to the Netherlands as an ambassador, he had been suffering for some time from a debilitating tumor (which was successfully operated on in September). His successor as minister of foreign relations was Talleyrand, who took up his quarters at the Hôtel de Gallifet while the rest of the Delacroix family was still living there. Eugène never indicated that he was aware of the rumors, but it was widely bruited that Talleyrand was his real father. As Duff Cooper observed in his biography of the statesman, Delacroix’s paternity “was generally ascribed to Talleyrand, and the theory was supported by a strong facial resemblance and by the fact that in the early days of his career the young artist was always in receipt of very valuable patronage and support from some mysterious and powerful source.”
Although he early on displayed an interest in painting, Delacroix’s artistic vocation did not really coalesce until his late teens, after the death of his mother in 1814. (His father had died nearly a decade before, in 1805). In later life, Delacroix referred to painting as an “exigent mistress” to whom everything else—even the steady stream of amours he entertained in his youth—must be sacrificed. But in fact, Delacroix’s commitment to art began, and in the deepest sense remained, firmly tied to a broader commitment to the world of high culture. “I have told myself a hundred times,” he wrote in 1850, “that painting, that is to say the material thing called painting, was no more than the pretext, than the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator.” As Meier-Graefe noted, Delacroix was “the last great painter who was a man of profound culture.” He grew up in a cultivated, though financially hard-pressed, household and early on developed a passion for reading that never left him. His journal makes it clear that Delacroix immersed himself in reading as in a rapt conversation among intimates. Books were one of his chief lifelines to human reality. Corneille, Molière, Racine; Shakespeare, Byron, Walter Scott; Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe; La Rochefoucauld; Casanova’s Mémoires; Plato, Tacitus, Plutarch; Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire, Diderot: Delacroix’s reading was as deep as it was wide. He read, criticized, and (selectively) admired the work of his friends George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, and Stendhal.
It is a pity that Baudelaire did not have the opportunity to read Delacroix’s journal.
Music was also important to Delacroix. He was a passionate devotee of Mozart and Rossini, delighted in Chopin (another close friend and the subject of a penetrating portrait) and distrusted Beethoven. Genius Delacroix possessed in abundance, but his artistic career was a never-ending struggle to subordinate genius to taste. “His lifelong endeavor,” Meier-Graefe wrote, “was to find a conventional language . . . capable of fettering his strong expression.” Thus Delacroix’s intractable duality: “In his facility of dramatic utterance, he was a Romantic, but when his mighty mind had taken its rapid flight through space, the faithful workman followed after, smoothing with almost bourgeois exactitude the road which his lightning invention had struck out in the new domain.”
Delacroix left the lycée in 1815, when he was seventeen, and entered the studio of Pierre Guérin (1774–1833), a protégé of David. Delacroix stayed with Guérin less than a year—he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1816—but he owed a great deal to the Neoclassical painter. Among other things, it was in Guérin’s studio that Delacroix first met the ill-fated Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), whose dramatic subject matter and correspondingly dramatic sense of composition were a revelation. (Géricault died in a riding accident in London in 1824, just when Delacroix’s career was beginning to take off.) In or about 1818, Géricault painted a haunting portrait, now in Rouen, of his friend, a remarkable picture in which Delacroix’s face hangs like an illuminated mask in a pool of darkness. Delacroix also posed for Géricault’s most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819). He is a central figure, doubled-over toward the viewer with his head bowed and left arm extended forward. Meier-Graefe called the Raft the “cradle” of Delacroix’s art. Delacroix would probably have agreed. He recalled that when he saw the finished painting, “the impression it made on me was so vivid that, when I left, I ran home like a madman, all the way to the rue de la Planche where I was then living.”
Géricault was one important influence on the young Delacroix; the Louvre provided others: above all Rubens, Veronese, and Michelangelo, whose work Delacroix diligently copied and whose expressive rhetoric he absorbed. From the start, Delacroix’s painting displayed considerable technical agility. He turned out political caricatures in the style of Rowlandson, religious pictures reminiscent of Raphael. But he did not become the artist we recognize as Delacroix until he painted the remarkable picture The Barque of Dante (Musée du Louvre) for the 1822 Salon. Executed largely while a friend read aloud to him from The Divine Comedy—a book that Delacroix often returned to and often illustrated—it portrays Dante and Virgil being driven across a stygian lake in a bark beset by the clamoring damned, some of whom Dante recognizes as former Florentines. Although clearly indebted to The Raft of the Medusa, The Barque of Dante speaks in a register and with a pathos all its own. Public and critical reaction to the painting can be described as mixed at best. The French government nevertheless bought the painting for a respectable sum—one token, perhaps, of that “valuable patronage and support from some mysterious and powerful source” that Duff Cooper alluded to.
Music was also important to Delacroix.
There were other such tokens. An enthusiastic article about Delacroix by the lawyer and diplomat Adolphe Thiers, for example, who was an ambitious political insider known not for his art criticism but for his attachment to a close friend of Talleyrand. In the 1824 Salon, Delacroix exhibited another early masterpiece, The Massacre at Chios (Musée du Louvre). This large canvas portrayed a devastating scene from the Greek rebellion against the Turks, a conflict that had captured the imagination of all Europe (Byron perished at Missolonghi that same year). Again, critical reaction was decidedly mixed (one critic called Delacroix’s offering “the massacre of painting”); and, again, the French government purchased the work.
Eighteen twenty-four was something of a turning point for Delacroix. He was lucky to have excited just the right amount of critical consternation. Together with the patronage he received, it assured his emergence as a figure of controversy—then as now a reliable prelude to success. “It was after the Massacre,” Delacroix explained in a touching recollection,
that I became an object of antipathy and a sort of bugbear. Most of those who took my side were really only defending theirs. . . . They enrolled me willy-nilly in the romantic coterie, so making me responsible for their folly. . . . I got out of it by dint of not asking for too much and thanks to an extreme self-confidence; that confidence which is the talisman of youth. . . . By this confidence I don’t mean a blind presumptuousness. . . . I have never had an exaggerated esteem for what I have done.
Nor in fact did most of the French cultural establishment. For example, it took multiple attempts over the course of twenty years—from 1837 to 1857—for him to win election to the Institut de France, an honor for which he seemed particularly eager.
For Delacroix, the important discovery of the 1824 Salon was the work of John Constable (1776–1837), whose painting The Hay Wain (1821) was also exhibited there and made a great impression. In fact, his experience of Constable’s work inspired him to repaint portions of The Massacre at Chios at the last moment. It doubtless also helped stiffen his resolve to visit London. Like many French writers and intellectuals at the time, Delacroix was already what one critic called an “Anglophile on principle.” The six thousand francs that he received from the French government for The Massacre at Chios made it possible for him to travel to London for the summer of 1825. He met and became fast friends with the painter Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–28), whose watercolors he greatly admired. (Like Géricault, Bonington died young: he fell victim to consumption only a few years later, when he was twenty-six.) Delacroix also learned to ride while he was in England—an experience that prompted some of his first animal studies. He became an avid devotee of the London stage, especially of Edmund Kean in Shakespeare (another writer to whom Delacroix often returned and whose work he would often illustrate).
It is easy to imagine Delacroix as an ardent traveler.
It is easy to imagine Delacroix as an ardent traveler. In fact, he traveled remarkably little outside France. Given the large place that “Oriental” themes have in his oeuvre, it is significant that he went to Africa only once, in 1832, when he accompanied a French commissioner on a five-month-long diplomatic mission and visited Morocco, Tangiers, Meknes, and Algiers. During this trip he traveled briefly to Spain. He went occasionally to stay with relatives at Strasbourg; in 1839, he traveled to Belgium and Holland. For the most part, however, Delacroix shuttled between various addresses in Paris and a small house in Champrosay, near Fontainebleau. He never went to Italy at all. Like many great artists, Delacroix was ruthless about his impressions: he exploited them shamelessly. What mattered was not number or extent but depth. Arlette Sérullaz, writing in the catalogue for this exhibition, is no doubt correct that Delacroix was “the first painter to penetrate the heart of Moroccan culture.” But that penetration became evident only in the transforming crucible of recollection. Looking back on his trip to Africa some twenty years later, Delacroix noted that “I began to make something tolerable of my African journey only when I had forgotten the trivial details and remembered nothing but the striking and poetic side of the subject. Up to that time, I had been haunted by this passion for accuracy that most people mistake for truth.”
Not mistaking mere accuracy for artistic truth is one of the polemical, anti-Ingres lessons of Delacroix’s art. But it is not the only lesson. Nor can it be understood apart from a larger context in which artistic truth turns out to depend upon a kind of accuracy after all—not the tabulating accuracy of optical versimilitude, perhaps, but that much more rigorous accuracy that consists in strict fidelity to the experience of the object. It was because he believed Ingres failed to achieve—or even aim for—this larger accuracy that Delacroix so deprecated his rival’s art. And it is because the counterfeit of such higher accuracy is a staple of much Romantic and post-Romantic art—down, indeed, to our own time—that critics like Nietzsche and Sedlmayr have been suspicious of Delacroix.
This panoramic exhibition of Delacroix’s later work should allay such suspicions. It reveals not only the intensity but also the extraordinary variety of Delacroix’s achievement. Despite increasingly long and severe bouts of illness—especially the recurrent tubercular laryngitis that he first contracted in the early 1830s and that would eventually kill him—Delacroix was as breathtakingly productive in his later years as he was early on. Indeed, in the last decade and a half of his life he painted a host of exceptional pictures, including what many consider his greatest masterpieces: the public decorations he carried out for the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre (1850–51), the Salon de Paix at the Hôtel de Ville (1852–54, destroyed by fire in 1871), and—his ultimate masterpiece—the sequence of murals he painted for the Chapelle des Saints-Anges at Saint-Sulpice (1849–61) in Paris. Those works are of course absent from the exhibition (and two preparatory studies for the Galerie d’Apollon and the Salon de Paix that were scheduled to be in the exhibition turned out to be too fragile to be included). But virtually every other aspect of Delacroix’s later work is well represented. The exhibition is divided into seven sections: animal and hunting pictures, landscapes and still lifes, classical allegories, illustrations of literary works, works inspired by his trip to Africa, religious pictures, and “last works,” in which a number of earlier themes are recapitulated.
The religious pictures are, perhaps, the greatest revelation.
The religious pictures are, perhaps, the greatest revelation. Delacroix was brought up in the secular traditions of the Enlightenment and Voltairean rationalism. “Deism” is one word for this position; but there are those who contend that “Déisme” is French for “atheism.” In this context, it is worth noting the remarkable conviction that some of Delacroix’s late paintings of religious subjects exhibit. Especially memorable are the series of small oils depicting Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1840–54)—the stormy sky seems to reenact the stormy drama of the disciples’ faith—and two large pictures of Christ on the Cross from 1846 and 1853. As Vincent Pomarède notes in the catalogue, such pictures suggest that the agnosticism of Delacroix’s youth was supplanted, not by faith exactly, but by “genuine metaphysical anguish.”
Henry James made a similar observation in his review of Delacroix’s letters in 1880. Writing about an 1848 depiction of the Entombment of Christ, James said that it was “the only modern religious picture I have seen that seemed to me painted in good faith.” Of course, “in good faith” is not the same as “from faith.” Baudelaire probably got it right when he observed, in 1846, that Delacroix, “perhaps . . . alone in this century of nonbelievers, has created religious paintings that were neither empty nor cold, like some works created for competitions, nor pedantic, nor mystical, nor neo-Christian.” Baudelaire cited the “geniune sadness” such pictures communicated as one source of their power. But it is not, I think, simply a matter of “sadness” or recognition of loss. In that same review of Delacroix’s letters, James notes that “the artist we value most is the artist who tells us most about human life.” Delacroix’s embrace of humanity did not omit the religious dimension of experience—a vestigial feature in the lives of many today, but central to the lives of most of humanity throughout history. Thus it is that he quotes with approval a book on aesthetics contending that “indifference to matters of religion must necessarily bring with it indifference to matters of art.” Delacroix’s own thoughts on the subject remained tentative and non-doctrinal. “God,” he wrote in a famous journal entry from 1862, “is within us. He is the inner presence that causes us to admire the beautiful, that makes us glad when we do right, and consoles us for having no share in the happiness of the wicked. It is he, no doubt, who breathes inspiration into men of genius, and warms their hearts at the sight of their own productions.”
In some ways, Delacroix’s achievement is bracketed by the furious energy of his animal paintings on one side and the meditative calm of certain of his literary and historical allegories on the other. Delacroix was without doubt one of the greatest painters of animals—especially of large cats and horses—who ever put brush to canvas. Not only did he manage prodigies of anatomical suggestiveness—his many trips to the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes gave him ample opportunity for observation—but also even his quickest sketches communicate a sly, tightly coiled animal passion.
One of the highlights of this exhibition is the Lion Hunt which was commissioned by the French government for the 1855 Exposition Universelle. Upon leaving the Salon, the painting was sent to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, where it was damaged in a fire in 1870. Even in its fragmentary state, however, it is a marvel of painterly energy. “Never,” Baudelaire wrote in his review, “have more beautiful or more intense colors penetrated to the soul through the channel of the eye. It is as if this painting, like the practitioners of magic or hypnotism, projects its thought from a distance. This remarkable phenomenon is owing to the power of the colorist, the perfect concurrence of tones and the harmony between the color and the subject.”
As this passage suggests, it was as a colorist that Delacroix tended to impress his contemporaries and artistic heirs most dramatically. Though, again, not always favorably: about the Lion Hunt the French critic Maxime Du Camp wrote that
color here is at its most extravagant and verges on raging madness; and there is complete disregard for harmony, since all of the tonal values are about equal. . . . Monsieur Delacroix will endure neither as a history painter nor as a painter of genre scenes. . . . As a classical writer once put it: Monsieur Delacroix is the leader, not of a school, but of a riot. This Lion Hunt is the height of eccentricity and does its utmost to rival the grotesque.
Du Camp was not alone in his condemnation. But history has confined his opinion of Delacroix’s color to the minority—to, perhaps, even the crankish. Far more typical was Cézanne’s comment about The Women of Algiers (1849): “The color of the red slipper,” he said, “goes into one’s eye like a glass of wine down one’s throat.” Delacroix’s technique involved a proto-pointillist maze of tiny brushstrokes in which a rainbow of hues built up a vibrating skin of color. Delacroix’s friend Théophile Silvestre recalled that, “instead of simplifying the local colors by generalizing, Delacroix multiplied the tones ad infinitum, and opposed them to one another in order to give each a double intensity. His color sparkles like a stream spattered by a shower.” Unfortunately, this is one aspect of Delacroix’s art that generally seems to have reached us in a diminished state. Delacroix often complained about the quality of the pigments he used. We know that he tended to use rather cheap colors, and comparing his canvases with descriptions up to the early decades of this century it is difficult not to conclude that his pictures have suffered considerable darkening. In pictures like the Lion Hunt, the fury remains but not, I suspect, quite all of the brilliancy.
Delacroix’s animal pictures tend to exist at the Romantic end of his emotional palette.
Delacroix’s animal pictures tend to exist at the Romantic end of his emotional palette. At the other end are many of his allegorical scenes. One of the most arresting is Ovid Among the Scythians (1859) from the National Gallery in London. It portrays the moment when Ovid, the very embodiment of cosmopolitan sophistication, arrived at his place of exile at the bleak fringes of the Roman Empire in what is now Romania. For us, who know that Ovid’s exile was destined to be a life sentence, it is a portrait of quiet but intense melancholy. Delacroix’s muted tones and depiction of vast mountainous perspectives conspire to reinforce the sense of desolation that civilization feels when confronted with irremediable barbarism. This was not the first time that Delacroix portrayed this unhappy scene from Ovid’s life, and the delicacy with which he treated the subject—together with the philistinism that Delacroix often felt surrounding him—tempts one to regard it as something of a spiritual self-portrait or confession. Its pertinence to the cultural situation today makes it even more poignant.
One of the curators’ finest decisions was to include as a kind of hors d’oeuvre the commanding self-portrait that Delacroix painted in 1837. Although it does not belong with the late works that are the focus of the exhibition, the picture does provide an illuminating cross-perspective from which to view it. Painted when Delacroix was nearing forty, it exudes an intense, challenging confidence, seductively worldly yet serious to the point of disdain. If it greets the visitor, it does so in a spirit as admonitory as it is welcoming. This is not a portrait of a Romantic, but of one who has triumphed over Romanticism: one whose vocation is not, in Eliot’s phrase, the “turning loose of emotion” but its purgation and redemption through art.
- In The Development of Modern Art (1908), Meier-Graefe remarks that Delacroix’s journal “should be a sort of Bible for young painters.” A generous selection from the journal was translated into English by Walter Pach and published under the title The Journal of Eugène Delacroix in a handsome edition by Crown in 1937. Delacroix kept the journal for the years 1822–1824, 1832, and 1847–1863. Unfortunately, the entries for 1848 are missing: Delacroix lost the relevant notebook while driving home in a cab from the Gare de Lyon. Go back to the text.
- “Delacroix: The Late Work” opens at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on September 15, 1998, and remains on view through January 3, 1999. The exhibition was first seen at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (April 7–July 20, 1998). A catalogue of the exhibition, with essays by Joseph J. Rishel, Arlette Sérullaz, Vincent Pomarède, and Lee Johnson, has been published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is distributed by Thames and Hudson (408 pages, $65; $48 paper). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 1, on page 9
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