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...


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