Delacroix, the most intelligent and complex of nineteenth-century French artists, was torn by conflicts. Classic or Romantic? Racine or Shakespeare? Mozart or Beethoven? Again and again the famous diary struggles with the opposing values implied by these names, and he was never able to harmonize them into final reconciliation. It was the same in his private life: “A revolutionary in his studio,” said Victor Hugo, “he was a conservative in the drawing room.” And Baudelaire, whose analysis of his character remains the subtlest, pointed out that his temperament “contained much of the sauvage…and much of the man-of-the-world.” Curiously (or inevitably) this awareness of some basic split in his personality seems to have conditioned the approach of nearly all who have written about him.
Delacroix has been relatively fortunate in the posthumous writing he has attracted. It begins with Baudelaire’s magnificent obituary, which celebrates the artist chiefly for his evocative qualities, qualities “which recall to the memory the greatest number of feelings and poetical thoughts which we had already known but believed to be buried for ever in the night of the past.” Baudelaire is thereby led to point out “that he has always attracted the admiration of writers…painters have never wholly understood him.” Yet even before Baudelaire himself was dead this was to be proved wrong, and we begin to come across the earliest tributes from a host of great painters, unequalled in stature since the seventeenth century, who were to see in Delacroix not “the singular and persistent melancholy that emanates from all his works” but the pioneer colorist whose explorations prepared the ground for nearly all the great artistic experiments between Impressionism and Fauvism.
For those who visited the great centenary exhibition at the Louvre last year the problem of trying to reconcile the “painter” and the “poet,” revealed in this dichotomy of approach, took a slightly different though related form. Unlike Baudelaire, we have had the chance to see the work of those “painters of modern life…who can snatch its epic quality from the life of today and make us see and understand, with brush or with pencil, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our patent-leather boots.” For we have behind us Manet and the Impressionists, who did just that, and for us the convention within which Delacroix was working seems in retrospect to have been no longer wholly valid. By pumping in much fresh blood he was the last to keep alive a world of imagery which was already dying. Comments heard at the exhibition seemed to imply that in every “grande machine” there was a modern painting struggling to get out. Such a viewpoint is, of course, quite unhistorical and fails to understand Delacroix’s most passionately held convictions, but it does suggest the nature of the unease we feel before some of his canvases and the sense of relief with which we turn to those that we can annex to our own vision of the world …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.