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. Many people must have stood in the Chapelle des Saints-Anges in St. Sulpice and looked respectfully at the finely painted but contrived Heliodorus Driven from the Temple, which seems to hark back all too consciously to the great architectural decorations of the past, and then—with what a surge of excitement—gazed at the opposite wall on which glows the wonderfully mystic Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, which seems to carry us straight into the world of Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Even Delacroix’s reception by his contemporaries appears to echo the division that runs through his life and work. Those two great enemies of modern art, the Salon and officially backed public opinion, so stubbornly united when it came to thwarting Manet and later artists, were never wholly in step in their opposition to Delacroix, and he received his légion d’honneur before being accepted into the Institut. Small wonder then that modern writers have tended to concentrate on one side or the other of Delacroix’s art, and though this point should not be exaggerated, the two books here reviewed, each so valuable, provide interesting examples of the practice. Though Mr. Johnson throws out many acute suggestions about Delacroix’s character and the sources of his imagination, he is basically concerned with the single problem of “reviewing Delacroix’s development in relation to his color theory and practice, and re-assessing what these owe to tradition, how far they may be original, what their connection was with the future.” The appearance of the book is highly misleading and nothing about the price (fortunately) or the illustrations (alas) suggests that this represents a major study of the utmost importance to our analysis of Delacroix’s paintings. In great detail, relying on the closest observation and an unrivaled knowledge of the literature, Mr. Johnson discusses Delacroix’s color in relation to predecessors such as Veronese and Rubens, to contemporary scientists such as Chevreul, and to later artists and theorists such as Seurat, Signac, and Van Gogh. By looking so hard and by describing with such absolute clarity what has always been recognized as the main strength of Delacroix’s art, Mr. Johnson has—modestly but powerfully—contributed to our assessment of French nineteenth-century painting as a whole. The colored plates of details are adequate for his purpose; the others barely so.
M. Huyghe, of course, also discusses Delacroix’s pictures in detail and here he is certainly helped by large numbers of excellent illustrations, though the strange little diagrams which he uses to explain the compositions are often only confusing. On the whole the emphasis of this book is much less on Delacroix purely as a painter and concentrates more on the relationship between his temperament and his art in general. In this he shows himself to be a most interesting and sensitive guide, only rarely indulging in that rhetorical style of writing which wears so badly in translation (“think of it!” we are commanded on one page, but this is an exception). It is unusual to find a French art historian so free from nationalist prejudice and so ready to discuss Delacroix’s debt to the stimulus of foreign civilizations. For M. Huyghe the key to Delacroix’s temperament is to be found in that dandyism which had already been noted by Baudelaire and which, so M. Huyghe claims, enabled the artist to keep in poise the many conflicting elements in his character which have already been pointed out. Though the implied analogy with Rembrandt with which he closes his book may seem rather exaggerated, there can surely be no question that this is the best general, large-scale study of Delacroix that has yet appeared.
September 10, 1964