Passion Painter

Delacroix

by Barthélémy Jobert
Princeton University Press, 336 pp.

The life of Eugène Delacroix, a life devoted to hard work and serious thought, has never tempted a film-maker. A painter of the passions, Delacroix was a reserved man and somewhat cold in manner. The modern public is as curious about the artist’s person as about his or her oeuvre. Van Gogh, with his generous spirit and troubled life, is the type of artist who has broad appeal, and he has been the subject of several films. Delacroix, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year, is an extremely famous painter, but hardly a popular one.

A longstanding rumor suggested that he was the son of Talleyrand, a speculation not quite as fantastic as it might seem. The painter’s official father, Charles Delacroix (1741-1805), was afflicted with a huge tumor of the left testicle, which weighed thirty-two pounds and prevented him from fathering children. On September 14, 1797, he underwent an operation, sufficiently sensational for an official account of it to be published. Eugène was born on April 26, 1798. The birth was likely premature, but could Charles have recovered in time to father his wife’s child? The timing is possible, but hardly probable.

Still, why was Talleyrand thought to be Eugène’s father? At the time of the painter’s birth, Charles Delacroix, a man of well-to-do family who had thrown in his lot with the Revolution, was French minister plenipotentiary, in other words ambassador, in Holland. He had previously been foreign minister, but had been replaced in this important office by Talleyrand, no less. So the two men would have been in touch.

The question of the painter’s true parentage is still open. Barthélémy Jobert in his recent book, the most substantial publication to mark Delacroix’s bicentenary, dismisses the Talleyrand story, a little too quickly perhaps, as apocryphal, but he is surely right not to dwell on it. After all, how could it have affected or influenced the painter’s life? Speculation that Talleyrand might have intervened to further the career of his presumed son does not seem to have any foundation in fact. As for Delacroix himself, while he was aware of the odd circumstances of his birth, he never, so far as we know, expressed any anxiety about it. The painter’s aristocratic manner has sometimes been ascribed to his supposed paternity. But both his legal father and his much older brother-in-law, Raymond de Verninac, became high-level diplomats. Delacroix was brought up in a milieu where aristocratic manners were expected.

More significant is the fact that at the age of seven, Delacroix lost his legal father. Without engaging in psychological speculation, one can say that this event had serious repercussions. The family fortune was mismanaged, and by the time Eugène’s mother died in 1814, when he was still only sixteen, not much was left of it. Having grown up in some luxury, Delacroix found himself almost without means. He had received an excellent education at the Lycée Impérial; nothing seemed to …

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