The last Delacroix exhibition in Britain was held in Glasgow in 1964, so “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art,” now at the National Gallery in London, was anticipated with some interest.1 Yet this is a bad exhibition with plenty of good paintings. It topples one revolutionary conceit, that Modern art was invented in 1863 with Manet’s Olympia, and erects another: that Modern art was invented in 1822 with Delacroix’s Barque of the Medusa.

This scenario, like the narrative of the avant-garde that proceeds from it, is both true and false. It is true that Delacroix combined an explosive technique, a scientific palette, and the passions of a reader who took Byron and Walter Scott at their word. It is false to equate Delacroix’s development of pictorial language with a lack of interest in its earlier development. It is true that Delacroix’s painting erupted with a symbolic force akin to that of another idea of the 1820s, Stephenson’s Rocket. It is false to say that Delacroix appeared from nowhere, or that, because the tracks of influence can run only forwards, change is coterminous with progress. Delacroix was a candid admirer of Rubens, as well as of those improbable revolutionaries, Constable and Parkes Bonington.

To remind us which painters must be admired as fearless modernists, and which derided as craven reactionaries, “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” narrates the familiar history of nineteenth-century French painting in a series of pairings. Unfortunately, one half of the pair is often missing, or represented in an inferior iteration. Instead of Delacroix’s Barque of Dante (1822), we see Manet’s small copy of 1854. Instead of Delacroix’s The Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1841), we see Renoir’s copy of 1875. While the Manet was a study made for Manet’s own purposes, the Renoir was painted on commission for the Mulhouse industrialist Jean Dollfus, who owned several Delacroix paintings. Renoir heightens the greenish atmosphere of Delacroix’s original, but it is hard to view his version as an autonomous work. It was painted to complement Dollfus’ Delacroix collection, and be complimented by it. When he painted it, Renoir hoped to gain a second commission, to copy The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.

Lamy’s Satan, popping up behind the mirror as the nude combs her hair, looks like a naughty priest with a comic hunch.

Worse, the flaming reds, fire-tinged flesh, and leering Satan of Delacroix’s Le Lever (1849–50) are represented by the weakest of impersonations. Pierre-Auguste Lamy’s black and white engraving of 1851 retains little sense of spiritual peril or Faustian damnation. Lamy’s Satan, popping up behind the mirror as the nude combs her hair, looks like a naughty priest with a comic hunch. This traduces Delacroix’s charged original, in which the hook of Satan’s nose is a vicious scimitar, a single stroke of red, his eyes and mouth blackened as though burnt, and his shoulders hunched with the muscular menace of a baboon. The only color in Lamy’s engraving is that of the red herring.

Nor does Lamy’s engraving have much of a relationship to Cézanne’s magnificently disturbed Le Lever (1885–90). Lamy, bowdlerizing Delacroix’s nude for the respectable voyeur, showed more of her left breast, but trimmed her pubic hair to Classical proportion, and thickened the locks that she is combing forward over her shoulder to obstruct the line of vision between Satan’s perch and her pudenda. Cézanne intensified Delacroix’s arrangement. The enemy reveals himself as a monkey-man with a horse’s tail, sliding round the table towards the nude. And the nude, tucking her hair over her shoulder and turning her body towards the viewer, now exposes herself entirely to his gaze and ours.

There are some magnificent Delacroix paintings here. How, among any collection of Delacroix paintings, could there not be a magnificent one? The last of the four versions of The Bride of Abydos (1857) is here—the brightest in color and loosest in brushwork, the struggling figures harmonized in a terrible dance, the line created by the meeting between colors. There is Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains (1853), where the paint develops an independent existence from the subject, and the virtuosity of color and the suppleness of its application turn a Romantic narrative into a Modern study in what Delacroix called “the abstract side of life.”

There is also the Byronic turbulence of Combat of the Giaour and Hassan (1835), partially derived from a Rubens drawing of 1603 after Leonardo’s lost Battle of the Standard, and possibly from another Rubens, Combat of the Amazons (1618), an engraving and copy of which Delacroix owned. Not that either are presented here. Instead, we are directed to look forward, even when, as in this case, the view is a lackluster derivative by Théodore Chassériau, Battle of Arab Horsemen Around a Standard (1854).

At times, though, even Delacroix is not himself. Most of the high-quality loans here are from American collections. The Louvre, which holds the keys to any comprehensive Delacroix exhibition, has not been generous. The National Gallery’s response is ingenious, but it cannot fully compensate for this absence. It might be unreasonable to expect the Louvre to lend out a massive masterpiece like The Death of Sardanapalus (1827–28). But the National Gallery’s substitute, a reduced replica of 1846 from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is not even the second best choice.

Paul Cézanne, The Eternal Feminine, about 1877, oil on canvas, 43.2 x 50.8 cm/© The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California (87.PA.79)

Delacroix painted the replica prior to selling the original to Daniel Wilson, an English entrepreneur and collector who was living in Paris. The replica includes the technical innovations of the full-scale original—the use of varnishes as pigmented, transparent layers standing alone or between layers of paint—but it has the feel of a reminder, a notation of a favorite recipe in case of need. The better small-scale alternative is the sketch in the Louvre, in which the three-dimensional whirl of color explains the structure of the painting to come. There is something both true and tendentious about the juxtaposition here of Delacroix’s replica—reduced in both scale and impact—with Cézanne’s harsh and cruel The Eternal Feminine (ca. 1877), in which a woman reclines in Sardanapalus’s spot, surrounded by men, all trying to impress her.

Too often, “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” achieves its cumulative effect by assertion rather than demonstration.

The pairing of Delacroix’s Bathers (1854), a tasteful exercise in Classical smut, with Cézanne’s light, lyrical, and boldly fragmented Bathers (1874) makes sense only if we know that Cézanne drew upon Delacroix, for little in Cézanne’s palette or execution proves the link. Too often, “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” achieves its cumulative effect by assertion rather than demonstration. The result, oddly enough, diminishes Delacroix, while talking of his apotheosis. In this exhibition, the paintings from his heirs are frequently of a higher quality than his work. Considering the lengths to which “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” goes to distract our eye away from Delacroix’s influences and towards his influence on others, this is ironic. Delacroix comes across as having never fulfilled his promise—as a kind of Richard Parkes Bonington.

“Who lost Bonington?” Eugène Devéria wrote in his journal in 1861. “France or England?”

France gained more. “The English School does not exist,” Renoir wrote to Ambroise Vollard in 1882. “They copy everything: sometimes they paint a Rembrandt, sometimes a Claude Lorrain. There is only one interesting artist, one who is not much talked about, Bonington.”

This was not true, though Renoir might have been on more solid footing had he grounded his argument on quality and sophistication rather than originality and enthusiasm. Two other current exhibitions show what the English painters were up to in the lost years, the period that began with the death of Constable in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, and ended with Roger Fry’s curation of “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Galleries in 1910—the year, tidily enough, in which Victoria’s podgy, genial son Edward VII expired.

At Leighton House, some of Frederick, Lord Leighton’s old friends have returned for “Pre-Raphaelites on Paper,” from the collection of Dennis T. Lanigan of Canada.2 The Pre-Raphaelites are often better on paper than in paint, for they can be more interesting to read about than to look at. Also, the modernity of their self-promotion sits oddly with their medieval self-image. The young William Morris, attempting to get inside the medieval mentality, accidentally trapped himself inside a knight’s helmet. The impulse that drove Morris to commit this artistic version of method acting is fascinating; the paintings he produced after he escaped the helmet, less so. His poems are diabolical, worse even than those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an artist whose fearless destruction of every art form to which he turned his cack hand anticipates Samuel Beckett’s dictum about trying again and failing better.

Those who view the prb in the way that farmers view foot and mouth need only know that in Canada this exhibition was titled “Beauty’s Awakening,” after a play of 1899, in which the knight Trueheart attempts to find “the Spirit of all things beautiful.” Visitors of a sensitive nature should be warned that this exhibition includes drawings by Rossetti and Morris. Most of them awaken nothing more than perplexity. What, apart from cholera, was in the drinking water? A couple of images are acutely distressing, such as a Morris study for La Belle Iseult (1857), in which the master got as far as her head and then either lost interest or, in a fleeting moment of self-knowledge, gave up in disgust. There are also several works by members of the reserve team, like Simeon Solomon who, being both gay and Jewish, was at his most modern when he was not painting.

Still, those of us who grew up among reprints of William Morris’s fabrics and wallpaper, or were exposed to William Blake at an impressionable age, will find much material for the defense in this exhibition. Its focus on drawings and watercolors plays to the strengths of the prb, and the later Victorians too. For every Rossetti who, asked to draw a silk purse, produces a pig’s ear, there is an Albert Moore or a Frederick Sandys. The critical stock of Moore’s oils was never high in his own time, even though Whistler claimed to admire them. It collapsed quickly after that, and has barely risen since. Here, the study Female Head in Profile shows Moore to have been an excellent draughtsman. The back and shoulders are deftly sketched, the head and face natural and unforced.

For every Rossetti who, asked to draw a silk purse, produces a pig’s ear, there is an Albert Moore or a Frederick Sandys.

This contrasts strongly with Moore’s oils—slightly salacious scenes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema, where the vestal beauties seem to be planning an orgy, which will start as soon as we look away. So too the contrast between Sandys’s King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Sancgraal (1861), and the preliminary drawing in pen and ink here. Leaving aside the Holy Grail business—after all, we overlook the mythological elements in Delacroix, too—the drawing is a subtle and strong study in the tradition of Dürer. With the viewer standing in Lancelot’s position, Elaine proffers the Grail, her face alive with erotic recognition. In the painting, she looks glassy-eyed, and her pinched mouth makes her look as if she is sucking a cough candy.

There are also excellent drawings here by William Bell Scott, William Blake Richmond, Valentine Prinsep, and Evelyn de Morgan. It makes you wonder what might have happened to British painting if Richard Parkes Bonington had not died prematurely in 1828. Would rpb have made the prb into painters in the fullest, French sense of the word?

Venus Dress, Look 15, Dolce & Gabbana S/S Fashion Show in Milan, Italy, 1993 Model: Karen Mulder/Courtesy:

This question recurs in the mass of Victoriana in the second room of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s “Botticelli Reimagined.”3 Sadly, to reach the second room, you must pass through the first room. The exhibition is constructed in reverse, from our time to Botticelli’s. It is a Spenglerian piece of curation.

You know you are in trouble when the first exhibit is a film loop of Ursula Andress, emerging from the sea in Dr. No. After that, The Birth of Venus is perpetually restaged, with diminishing returns of interest, and rising desperation among the perpetrators. There is Botticelli by way of Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Cindy Sherman, and, more interestingly, Magritte, Dufy, and Dalí. There is also porno Botticelli (David LaChapelle), fashion Botticelli (Dolce & Gabbana), and pre-op transsexual Botticelli (Joel-Peter Witkin), in which Mars may get more than he bargains for.

The Pre-Raphaelites are often accused of being bloodless. After seeing the French “body artist” Orlan undergoing cosmetic surgeries while a doctor holds up a photocopy of “The Birth of Venus,” the second room comes as a relief. This broad, well chosen, and enlightening sequence shows the limits of the Victorian obsession with beauty, but also its fecundity. There are the usual prb suspects, outright stinkers like Arnold Böcklin’s Birth of Venus (1868–69), and period fancies like Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus (1879), in which an attendant satyr blows a conch while sporting a bowl haircut and an expression more redolent of cretinism than reverence. But there is also the technical skill of Ingres and Joseph Pennell, and the Romantic flair of John Flaxman and Gustave Moreau.

The Botticellis in the last room do not disappoint, although the curators again invert the chronology. You arrive in the central area of the show, which is framed by late works from Botticelli’s “archaic” period. The year 1494 was a watershed for Botticelli, and for Florence: the French invaded Italy, the Medicis were turned out of Florence, and Savonarola was on the rise. From penitent conscience or commercial sense, Botticelli turned medieval, abandoning fixed perspective and adopting a tone of not-unconvincing piety. Our Botticelli—that is, the nineteenth century’s Botticelli—is displaced onto the side walls.

Installation view of “Botticelli Reimagined”/(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are two strong groups here. A long row of tondi depicting the Virgin and Child shows that the opportunist reproduction of Botticelli was not a twentieth-century invention. And a shorter sequence of four portraits of Simonetta Vespucci, the beloved of Giuliano de’ Medici, shows Botticelli’s idealizing method. In the Portrait of a Lady (1485–90), probably by Raffaelino del Garbo, Vespucci is merely beautiful. In Botticelli’s “Ideal Portraits” (both ca. 1475–80), her nose is straighter, her lips plumper, her neck longer, her jaw stronger, and her hair elaborately plaited. In his Allegorical Portrait of a Lady (also 1475–85), Vespucci, having attained ideal form, expresses a symbolic squirt of milk from her left breast. The significance of this remains obscure, but the chronological inversion of “Botticelli Reimagined” implies that Botticelli took it from Cindy Sherman.

You might, of course, enter the exhibition in reverse. But then you would have to run the gauntlet of rubbish in the gift shop.

1 “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” opened at the National Gallery, London, on February 17 and remains on view through May 22, 2016.

2 “Pre-Raphaelites on Paper: Victorian Drawings from the Lanigan Collection” opened at the Leighton House Museum, London, on February 12 and remains on view through May 29, 2016.

3 “Botticelli Reimagined” opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on March 5 and remains on view through July 3, 2016.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 8, on page 53
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now