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.1 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 mark him out in advance for an artistic career, but he was irresistibly drawn toward it. In 1815, he entered the studio of the neoclassical painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, where he would become friendly with a former pupil, Théodore Géricault, the most innovative painter of his time, who was already enjoying some measure of fame.
Delacroix also attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a school that produced many artists who were later subsidized by the government, but despite being short of money he did not try very hard to compete for scholarships. However, in 1819 he received his first commission, The Virgin of the Harvest—a Raphaelesque composition which is still hanging in the church at Orcemont in the Paris suburbs. The following year, Géricault, whose family had means, offered to let Delacroix take over a state commission he had received to paint an altar-piece, The Virgin of the Sacred Heart, a more vigorous work for which Géricault may have provided ideas. This curious transaction was the sign of an exceptional rapport between the two men and of the encouragement Delacroix received from his older colleague.
Delacroix made his debut at the Salon of 1822 with The Barque of Dante, a powerful canvas inspired by The Divine Comedy showing Dante and Virgil in a fragile boat crossing the infernal lake under a stormy sky, surrounded by tortured souls with the bodies of Michelangelesque nudes. This strikingly original work was enthusiastically reviewed by the young Adolphe Thiers (later to become one of the most powerful and durable politicians of the century); it was purchased immediately by the state for the new museum of contemporary art, and established Delacroix as an important figure in the artistic scene.
From 1822, Delacroix rarely missed an opportunity to exhibit at the annual Paris Salon, even though the jury, controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, sometimes rejected his submissions. The 1824 Salon was the first at which one of his works could be seen alongside a canvas by Ingres, who had just returned from a long, self-imposed exile. Eighteen years older than Delacroix, Ingres had been savaged by critics in 1806; the news reached him in Rome, where he had gone as the winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, and he determined to return only when he could be sure of critical success. Ingres was long thought of as a rebellious innovator; but the powerful critic Etienne-Jean Delécluze promoted him as the artist who could restore to its former glory the neoclassical school of David, which had been in very obvious decline for years.
Ingres thus returned to Paris after eighteen years as the champion of classicism, bringing with him his painting Vow of Louis XIII, an altarpiece commissioned for the cathedral of Montauban, his native city. The painting was hung at the same 1824 show where Delacroix exhibited his Scenes from the Massacres of Chios, a huge canvas showing the suffering of Greek victims of the conquering Turks on the island of Chios. Inspired by Byron’s campaign on behalf of Greek liberation and by his poetry, which excited Delacroix’s imagination, this painting baffled most viewers because it has no clear narrative. Delécluze attacked it as sketchily painted and ugly—common epithets used by conservative critics against Romantic painting.
It would be wrong to think that the battle lines of Romanticism and Classicism were clearly staked out from that point on. Delacroix, to be sure, was manifestly in the Romantic camp; but Ingres’s position was more ambiguous. He was immediately elected a member of the Academy, thanks to the influence of the very powerful Delécluze, but he remained an isolated figure within it; and the Romantics—including Delacroix—held him in high esteem. Ingres’s Apotheosis of Homer, a ceiling canvas commissioned for the Louvre and hung at the salon of 1827-1828, is an artistic manifesto in which Ingres included all his own cultural icons. Even if he is placed on the edge of the canvas and partly cut off by the frame, Shakespeare is one of them. There can be no doubt about the meaning of this detail—in the wake of the publication of Stendhal’s hotly debated Racine et Shakespeare (1826).
Shakespeare was an emblematic figure not only for Stendhal but for the entire Romantic movement, and no one who wholeheartedly supported the Classical faction could possibly have included him in a gallery of cultural heroes. Years later, when Ingres revised the image for engraving, he added many figures—but he cut out Shakespeare. The antagonism between Ingres and Delacroix did not really become absolute and unbridgeable until 1834, when Ingres’s large painting The Martyrdom of St. Symphorien was generally condemned by critics for being discordant and badly conceived. Ingres then accepted the mantle of David and saw himself as the last defender of classical principles in the midst of general corruption.
Up to 1835, Delacroix’s allegiance to Romanticism is beyond question. With subjects taken from the works of Byron and Goethe and from contemporary life, with his strong use of color and the liberties he took with drawing (verging at times on caricature), he exhibited all the main features of that school, as the set of paintings that he sent in for the 1827 Salon (a particularly long-running show, which continued into 1828) clearly demonstrates. Delacroix submitted no fewer than twelve works, some large and some small, in a broad range of genres, from history painting (The Agony in the Garden, Justinian Drafting His Laws), to portraiture (Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter, rejected by the jury), to still life (the amazing Still Life with Lobsters), not to mention oriental subjects and topics drawn from Byron, such as the dazzling Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero, now in the Wallace Collection in London.
The most spectacular by far of these paintings was the enormous canvas of The Death of Sardanapalus (see illustration on page 12), in the Louvre, showing an ancient Oriental potentate surrounded by his harem and the rest of his household, all of whom are about to be killed along with him. The picture arrived very late at the exhibition, in February 1828, and caused a huge outcry. Public and critics alike were disturbed by the composition—a confusing assemblage of frenetic figures shown as if caught up in a whirlwind—and by its execution, with its tormented bodies, aggressive brushwork, and violent colors. This major and much-admired work, seen nowadays as the very emblem of Romanticism in art, had virtually no supporters in its own day. Delacroix was quite obviously shocked by the violent and almost unanimous response that his painting provoked; but, as Jobert rightly stresses, his career did not suffer from it as much as has been claimed. Indeed, his productivity in that period was stupendous, for alongside the works done for the Salon, he simultaneously completed a set of seventeen lithographs for the 1828 illustrated edition of Goethe’s Faust, which Goethe himself welcomed without reservation, and which form one of the great moments in the history and art of lithography. It is also the period when Delacroix’s disdain for academic correctness is at its most extreme. Without explicitly declaring himself the leader of a school or faction, Delacroix, in the years just before the Revolution of 1830, did not dislike being seen as the standard-bearer of Romanticism in art.
The 1830 Revolution, in which the ultraroyalist regime of Charles X was overthrown and replaced by the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, had a major impact on Delacroix. The Greek War of Independence in the early 1820s had inspired several canvases (notably Scenes from the Massacres of Chios), but these subjects, even if they were drawn from contemporary events, were also distant ones, seen through the light of orientalism, and as much a reflection of the painter’s Byronism as of any concern with the political issues involved. July 28. Liberty Leading the People, a major canvas in which a young working-class woman is seen leading a crowd in protest against an oppressive regime, was directly inspired by the events of July 1830. It is Delacroix’s one and only explicitly political canvas.
But the change of regime affected Delacroix in other ways too. In 1832, he was invited by the new government to accompany the young Count de Mornay on his mission to persuade the Sultan of Morocco not to intervene in Algeria, where French settlers were pouring in in the wake of military occupation. Up until then, the Muslim East had only been a fantasy world for Delacroix, put together mostly from Byron’s poetry and from seeing a few costumes, weapons, and other objects brought back to Paris by travelers. But the months that he spent in North Africa with Morny’s embassy provided him with sights, motifs, and experiences that he would draw on for the rest of his working life.
The reign of Louis Philippe and the government of Adolphe Thiers were useful to Delacroix in other ways. Though he had a very mixed critical reputation and was kept outside the inner sanctums of the official art world—the Institut and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts—Delacroix was favored by the government from 1833 on with a stream of commissions for the decoration of great public buildings: the Salon du Roi at the Palais Bourbon (the French parliament building), then the library of the same institution, the Senate library (in the Palais du Luxembourg), the ceiling of the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre, and the Chapel of the Holy Angels at the church of Saint-Sulpice.
The Palais Bourbon projects clearly had a moderating effect on Delacroix. He realized that it was impossible to renew monumental art, which David and his disciples had largely abandoned, simply by painting very large easel works. He had to adapt to the public settings in which his work would appear. He looked back to the tradition of the great painter-decorators of the Renaissance; the Fontainebleau frescoes were being restored at that time, and clearly Delacroix was inspired by them.
This return to Renaissance sources also affected his easel work. Medea about to Kill Her Children, exhibited at the 1838 Salon and bought by the state for the art gallery at Lille, is filled with references to the classical art of the Italian Renaissance, especially Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and Correggio. It met with almost complete success although, as before, Delécluze felt obliged to criticize his draftsmanship. Should the Medea be seen as a partial surrender to the pressures of critical opinion? I would see the painting instead as a major turning point for an artist less concerned with negotiating the rocks and shoals of the critical sea than with measuring himself against the great masters of the past. Medea marks the farthest point of an exploration that he took no further, which is perhaps why Delacroix considered it so important. He does not seem to have been upset by the fate of Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women, a magnificent canvas showing a considerable degree of movement toward classical style, which was hidden away in a church in the small town of Nantua, in a remote Alpine valley; but he was mortified by the exile to Lille of Medea, and he painted different versions of it toward the end of his life.
The period of Medea is thus particularly important in Delacroix’s career, one somewhat neglected in this year’s bicentennial exhibitions. Delacroix, who had been a brilliant painter since his youth, then became the most scholarly painter of his age—scholarly in the sense that he explored the whole of Western painting in his work and sought to produce a hugely ambitious synthesis of its history. The grandiose canvas of The Justice of Trajan (1840) can be seen as the high point of such historical self-consciousness: countless references to the pictorial tradition are seamlessly woven into a work that is at the same time an emphatically personal creation.
As for Delacroix’s life, it was one of constant work, hampered only by fragile health. Highly cultivated and more than something of a dandy, he respected the talent of Balzac but could not bear the vulgarity of that stout and ill-kempt little man. With his disdainful manner, the painter gave the impression of being rather scornful of his contemporaries, holding himself aloof from virtually all of them, except for Chopin. Once he had outgrown his youthful sexual urges, he had several quiet liaisons, none of which distracted him from his one true passion, painting. His most regular female companion was his housekeeper, Jenny Le Guillou, of whom he was very fond, but their social inequality left him free to devote himself to his work. Reading, theater-going, and above all music were not mere distractions since they served as inspiration for his art. He was a frequent guest in high society, but this was also a means of furthering his career. For Delacroix, art was not only a vocation but also the profession to which he had wholeheartedly dedicated himself.
In his scrupulously documented book, Jobert portrays Delacroix as a thorough professional. He certainly took seriously the advice he had received in a letter from Stendhal: “Neglect nothing that can make you great.”2 As Jobert shows, he played the art-world game to the full, seeking out commissions, seizing every opportunity to exhibit, and taking care not to alienate critics, while privately disdaining them. He even applied no fewer than eight times for membership in the Académie des Beaux-Arts before he was elected at last in January 1857.
The late 1840s marked a new phase in Delacroix’s life, when he once more started writing a journal. A talented writer since his youth and the author of a number of articles for the press, he kept a personal diary between 1822 and 1824—a typical young man’s diary, trying out various forms of self-expression, while recording from time to time his sexual success with his models. When he started writing it again in 1847, the journal was quite different and much more original. It is a combination of everyday events jotted down as they happened, reflections, sometimes very carefully composed and intended for publications such as the projected Dictionary of Fine Arts (which never saw the light of day), copies of letters, and extracts from his reading. It is a kind of commonplace book, one that he regularly reread and reconsidered, inserting retrospective comments on his own previous thoughts.3 The Journal, published in part in 1893 and much admired, gives an idea of the intense intellectual self-awareness that characterizes the art of Delacroix’s later years. For instance, on March 1, 1847, he notes:
I began, after lunch, to work again on the Christ at the Grave [the Boston Lamentation; see illustration on page 14]…. I am happy with this sketch, but how can I, when adding details, preserve the impression of unity that results from very simple masses? Most painters, and I once used to do the same, begin with details and unify the effect at the end. However painful it may be to see the impression of simplicity produced by a beautiful sketch disappear as one adds details, a great deal more remains of this impression than you would manage to put in if you proceeded in reverse.
It is possible to speak of a “late-Delacroix” style—not perhaps in quite the same way as we talk about late Titian or late Franz Hals, since both men were very much older, but he had in common with them that he was by now following a lonely path. At a time when Courbet, a born publicist, was scandalizing conservative opinion, Delacroix tended more and more to withdraw into himself.
This last phase of Delacroix’s career has been made the subject of the main event marking the bicentenary of his birth: a major exhibition in Paris that is now in Philadelphia. After 1845, Delacroix was to paint no more large canvases for the Salon, with the exception of the Lion Hunt, a state commission for the Universal Exposition of 1855. From now on, his painting would be divided between large-scale decorative works and small to medium-sized canvases. Since the murals could not be moved for exhibition purposes,4 these smaller, more intimate paintings make up most of the exhibition.
The Paris exhibition was by no means an unqualified success. And yet there was much to be said for the idea of bringing these late works to our attention: they are far less well known than the early work of Delacroix—the passionate painter of Sardanapalus, not to mention Liberty Leading the People, (which was everyday currency in France until recently, since it was reproduced for a while on the 100-franc note). If the work of the young Romantic appeals more to a modern public, and if the works of his middle years such as The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople or Women of Algiers have a sumptuous beauty which cannot fail to move, these late paintings have a depth, an intensity, and perfection that in some respects goes beyond anything he had previously done. But they are more difficult to appreciate and the choice of period was bound to pose a challenge.
In order to pay their way, large-scale exhibitions these days need to appeal to a huge public, admitting several thousand visitors a day. If Delacroix’s paintings, despite his great fame, have never been very popular, his last works are particularly demanding of the viewer. They are rarely larger than about 32 inches across, and that in itself makes it hard to mount an accessible display. Mostly rather dark and full of nuances, with glazes that produce subtle transparent effects, these works require excellent conditions if they are to be properly seen. Natural light is virtually essential for a proper appreciation of the transparent effects. In the Grand Palais, however, there was not a ray of natural daylight. (From all reports, the lighting is better in Philadelphia.) Harsh spot lighting around the edges of galleries otherwise in semidarkness had the effect of flattening the paintings, exaggerating reflections, and annihilating all their subtleties. Worse still, many of the lenders of the paintings insist on their being protected behind glass, which is extremely obtrusive, especially with dark painting. To appreciate Delacroix’s facture, the handling of paint, which is at once free yet densely wrought, the viewer ought to come very close to the paintings, but with large crowds security makes this impossible.
A painting which I have been able to examine under good conditions, the Horses coming out of the sea, from the Phillips Collection in Washington, was in Paris reduced to what one might see in a postcard reproduction. It is still a fine image; but as we look at the landscape in which a turbaned rider pulls a second horse by its reins from the sea, we could hardly guess at the refinement and boldness of color, the blues and pinks shimmering in the coats of the two horses. An entire little scene in the far right background of the painting, a horseman about to ride into the sea, painted with the precision of a miniaturist, was quite lost from view.
The difficulty people have in appreciating late Delacroix is not simply a matter of display conditions. With their technically complex handling of paint these works have suffered particularly from the ravages of time. Some pictures have been deadened by heavy-handed relining or overenergetic cleaning. A particularly delicate question for restorers is that of varnish. Delacroix, who was passionately interested in every technical aspect of painting, paid special attention to his varnishes, incorporating them into the painting itself, to render it more permanent (sometimes with the opposite effect).5 He also varnished his paintings after they were finished and we cannot be sure that these varnishes were completely colorless. They may have allowed the artist to harmonize certain tones.
In this respect, the exhibition mounted in Paris by the Musée Delacroix (a small museum in the rue Furstemberg), exploring the links between Delacroix and his friend Frédéric Villot, contained a suggestive juxtaposition. When Delacroix sold his Death of Sardanapalus to the collector John Wilson in 1846, he painted a much smaller copy of it (now in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Villot, a minor artist himself and a curator at the Louvre, in turn made a copy of the copy. The two copies, both apparently in good condition and newly cleaned, give two quite different impressions. Was this because Villot took liberties? I am not so sure. The Delacroix canvas as it appears today is generally colder, in particular the background on the right of the picture is grayish-blue, whereas in Villot’s it seems to have a warmer brown tone. Sardanapalus’s costume, now pure white in the Delacroix, is creamy-colored in the Villot, and the drapery of the woman being stabbed in the right foreground, instead of being the same blue as in the Delacroix, is a touch greenish. All these characteristics—and more could be added—fit the hypothesis that Delacroix originally used a blond varnish which may have given some warmth and a softer tone to the whole composition. This kind of observation of course raises awkward questions about the relation between what we see today and the painting as it left the hands of the artist.
The organization of the Paris and Philadelphia exhibitions by themes is also open to question. While the paintings of wild animals in the first section, “Felines and Hunts,” are coherently grouped together, they should not have been completely separated from those in “The Lesson of Morocco,” since both themes are connected with his impressions of Africa. On the other hand it was useful to see Delacroix’s paintings of religious subjects brought together, since they occupied a very large place in his work, and not merely because they were dictated by commissions. Several times Delacroix, who was known to have been agnostic, himself chose religious subjects for his large-scale exhibition canvases, such as his Saint Sebastian, shown at the Salon of 1836.6 This was one way he could take on and renew the grand pictorial tradition, measuring himself against his great predecessors.
The pictures on religious subjects of his later years are more personal and more intensely expressive. They were certainly not intended to be hung in churches. Even a fairly large-scale work like The Lamentation, now in Boston, where the figure in the foreground, meditating while holding the crown of thorns, is an invention which departs so radically from iconographical tradition that one can question its identification as Saint John (in his Journal, Delacroix describes this as “the naked figure in the foreground”). Delacroix treated sacred texts as a source of intensely emotional subjects that lent themselves to expression in pictorial terms. One of the most successful groupings in the exhibition brings together six versions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee (see illustration on page 12), painted between 1840 and 1854; but it would have been worth taking the trouble to show alongside these the canvas of the Shipwreck of Don Juan, first exhibited in 1841. The extreme similarity of composition and feeling between these paintings would demonstrate how misleading it can be to categorize by subject.
We should not see in the proliferation of religious subjects toward the end of Delacroix’s life some sort of resignation, a tendency to orthodoxy. The passage from his Journal which is sometimes quoted as evidence of his religious belief can be read rather as a statement of faith in Romanticism:
God is within us; it is this inner presence which makes us admire the beautiful, which heartens us when we have done well, and consoles us for not sharing the happiness of the wicked. It is this, no doubt, which inspires men of genius and stirs them when they contemplate their own achievements.
What seems to emerge here, rather than religious sentiment, is the aestheticizing of the divine and the cult of genius. Delacroix was attracted by the poetry of sacred texts and their expressive potential, their capacity to fire his imagination, as did the poetry of Byron. For him there was really no difference between literary and religious subjects.
It is not at all clear, in fact, that simply accumulating the last works is the best way to bring out their specific qualities. Delacroix always had a tendency to rework his compositions, producing variants on them. Many have assumed that this was a result of collectors and dealers asking him for replicas of successful paintings, but that is certainly not a complete explanation. We can be sure that in some cases his reworking of compositions from many years earlier was entirely spontaneous. The last version of Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, dated 1859, reproduces with some variations the composition of a lithograph from 1828, the first interpretation of this scene that Delacroix made.
The parallel between Delacroix and Ingres is always instructive. In the center of the Turkish Bath, Ingres’s last composition, finished only in 1863, he quotes from his Valpinçon Bather, a youthful work which had been violently attacked in 1808. The aging Ingres, an extremely obstinate man and a bearer of grudges, who was regarded as the greatest living French painter in his last years, was taking his revenge on his former enemies. Delacroix’s 1859 painting of Hamlet has a quite different significance: by returning to this youthful work, he seems rather to be measuring the immense distance traveled in thirty years. The early lithograph of 1828 is a charming picture: Horatio and Hamlet are fantastic figures who stand out very distinctly against the sketchy background of the graveyard. The 1859 version shows much deeper feeling. Yorick’s skull, a prominent stage prop in the earlier version, is only hinted at, while the figures are integrated into the landscape in a complete unity of mood, and the interplay between the last red rays of the setting sun and the torches of the funeral procession introduces a vibrating visual effect in keeping with the vigorous impasto that animates the picture’s surface.
Unfortunately missing from the exhibition is the Metropolitan Museum’s Abduction of Rebecca, a painting which Delacroix first showed in 1846. A comparison with the Louvre version of the late 1850s, which was on show, would have been telling. The subject is from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, showing the scene where Rebecca is carried off from the castle of Front-de-Boeuf by two “Saracen slaves,” at the bidding of the Templar Bois-Guilbert. The subject had the advantage of allowing Delacroix to combine in a single image Scott’s narrative verve and his own Moroccan memories (as seen in the Jewish woman Rebecca and the turbaned African).
The later version was fiercely attacked when shown in the 1858 Salon, and Paul de Saint-Victor considered it a shapeless sketch. Yet Delacroix had painted some elements in precise detail: the sacked castle in the background, barely suggested in 1846, is now clearly visible, providing a firm structure for the pictorial space, but the figures are pushed further back and almost vanish in a whirlwind of color. The Saracen in the foreground is much easier to distinguish than the main characters. In this and other late works Delacroix was evidently determined to merge the figures in with the landscape and avoid having them stand out.
Here we can see how paradoxical was Delacroix’s approach to the subjects of his paintings, especially in his last years. He had never liked the anecdotal aspect of history painting, which enhanced the popular appeal of a painter like Paul Delaroche, whom Delacroix ridiculed. For him, portraying a literary subject did not mean telling a story in pictures but inspiring in the viewer through specific pictorial techniques—expressive movements by the human figures, color, balance of light, brushstrokes—the emotion that the text had inspired in the painter. The finished work, he felt, should be able to replace the text which had inspired it and be self-sufficient, even in the case of a series of prints, such as the lithographs of Faust or Hamlet. Hence the decision to publish his Hamlet plates independently of the text.
Delacroix, who often thought in musical terms, distinguished “composition” from “execution”: on the one hand, there was the arrangement of the figures corresponding to the chosen subject—everything in fact that went into the esquisse, or initial sketch; on the other hand, there was the elaboration of the painting, the molding of the forms, the expressive alchemy of color, the reconciliation of a line traced in a two-dimensional plane with the suggestion of depth. In his last years, Delacroix was much more absorbed by execution than by composition, with the result that he often revisited and revised past compositions, some of them from many years earlier. He had no need to concern himself with the narrative aspect of the subject and could concentrate on the expressive possibilities of handling paint.
Throughout his career, Delacroix had been the object of two main charges by his detractors: that he could not draw, and that he failed to finish his pictures and exhibited mere sketches. In fact his drawing was a source of anxiety to him. In 1824 he was already noting in his Journal:
The first and most important thing in painting is the outline. The rest can be extremely negligent, but if that is there, the painting will be solid and complete. I, more than others, need to watch myself on this point: think of it all the time and always start with it. Raphael owed the quality of his finish [le fini] to this, and it is often there in Géricault too.7
Delacroix drew indefatigably, and he jealously preserved his slightest sketches because each one contained a specific thought or observation. On his death, some six thousand sheets of drawings, carefully classified for easy reference, were found in his studio and later dispersed by public auction, according to the artist’s own wish. Yet for Delacroix, drawing did not mean only, or even especially, this constant graphic practice; rather it was an essential aspect of painting. That is why the problem of drawing and the problem of the fini, the degree of finish, were for him intimately linked, as he wrote in his journal. In a sketch, forms could remain tentative, open to completion by the viewer’s imagination, but they had to be fully worked out in the completed painting.
Traditionally, ever since the Renaissance and the polarity between Venice and Florence, artists had been divided between the partisans of color and the partisans of line: Titian versus Raphael, Rubens versus Poussin. Delacroix and Ingres continued this opposition, at least in the eyes of the public. In the view of Ingres, who loudly declared his loyalty to the cult of Raphael to the virtual exclusion of all others, while allowing himself the most extreme eccentricities in his master’s name, color was exclusively local color. In other words, every object represented had a particular color, which was confined to its surface alone. For him drawing was the art of line, line within a plane, line that he sought to make as expressive as possible, line that gave structure to the picture, with every color tone being contained within the contour.
That Delacroix, by contrast, was a colorist cannot be disputed: it is the color and distribution of light that are central to his paintings. But he did not on that account disclaim the heritage of Raphael. In his notebooks, what he always criticizes even in his favorite painters such as Rubens and Géricault, though never Raphael, is lack of “unity” (or of simplicity and naturalness, which are virtually synonyms for him). He was literally obsessed by this quality. Consequently he took great pains, and much time, to weave detail into the continuity of the pictorial surface, sometimes continuing such work over several years. He painted by means of successive layers, tone over tone, using glazes as well as paint. For him, all color was a reflection, so that the shades of color on one point of the canvas were always affected by those around them. As a result his painting is entirely made up of nuances, without any continuous expanses of color. To avoid the line becoming fixed on the surface, the outline is often not traced at all, merely suggested by small, modeling brushstrokes, apparently free but actually very precise; thus in places, tiny details can be rendered, becoming visible but not standing out, which for Delacroix would have been the most disastrous of mistakes.
This painstaking facture by a painter famed for his so-called negligence surprised some of his contemporaries. On May 23, 1853, he noted in his Journal:
Riesener once again criticized me for seeking to bring a degree of finish to my small paintings; it seems to him that it makes them lose a lot, compared with what is there in the sketch or in a more spontaneous and rapidly executed first attempt. Maybe he’s right, and maybe he’s wrong.
It was an accepted fact that the notion of le fini—the carefully finished or licked surface—divided the members of the Academy, who explicitly favored it, from independent-minded artists, who regarded visible brushwork as evidence of individuality; hence the unease of the painter Léon Riesener, who saw his cousin and friend as betraying the just cause. Delacroix, who was indifferent to prejudice one way or the other, was clearly amused by his disquiet.8
Delacroix’s life and art are full of these paradoxes, which disconcert us today just as they disconcerted his contemporaries, and which are intimately linked to his being a modern painter. One can understand Barthélémy Jobert’s attempt to free Delacroix from the modernist tradition inaugurated by Baudelaire, who celebrated him as the all-powerful artist escaping from history. One can sympathize with Jobert’s wish to locate Delacroix in his own time and rediscover the professional craftsman which he indeed was. But the result is to give us a rather tame Delacroix. This is not the Delacroix of Baudelaire and Cézanne; that Delacroix certainly exists, but in his art, and only in his art.
—Translated from the French
by Siân Reynolds and David Bellos
January 14, 1999
Simon Schama tells me that according to documents he has seen gossip was already circulating of an affair between Mme. Delacroix and Talleyrand at the time of Delacroix Senior’s embassy to Holland. ↩
Long after Stendhal’s death, Delacroix reminded himself of these words in his journal (January 31, 1850). ↩
Delacroix’s Journal was partly published in 1893, and later in more complete form, edited by André Joubain (Paris: Plon, 1931-1932), and reissued with minor corrections in 1981 and 1996. Michèle Hanoosh has shown that this edition cannot be regarded as satisfactory, since it reduces to a strictly linear format a text created by a complex process over a period of years. Hanoosh’s forthcoming critical edition for Les Editions Macula is eagerly awaited. The available English translations are incomplete and unreliable. ↩
Most of the decorative work was painted onto canvas glued to the walls and cannot be detached. The Pietà from Saint-Denis-du-Saint-Sacrement is a separate canvas and was shown at the exhibition mounted for the centenary of Delacroix’s death in 1963, but it was not lent again this time. ↩
The question of technique and in particular that of the varnishes is discussed in a very interesting contribution by David Liot, featured at the end of the exhibition catalog; it would have been good to see this more developed. ↩
This picture was bought by the state and sent to the church at Nantua, but was not a commission like the Christ in the Garden of Olives in the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris, shown in 1827-1828. ↩
Journal, April 7, 1824. Delacroix underlined these words in the original. ↩
Certain art historians have cited ambiguities, such as Delacroix’s equivocal position as a painter who was at once official and avant-garde, to support the claim that the opposition between academic art and modernist art is an artificial one, imposed a posteriori. But it is clear that Delacroix was well aware of these ambiguities; he nevertheless felt himself to be opposed to the traditionalist art of the Academy (even if he claimed to favor classicism, true classicism that is, not that of the latter-day followers of David). One can therefore understand his—obviously ironic—reply to Victor Hugo, when the poet reproached him for the contradiction between his political conservatism and his pictorial modernism. Delacroix replied that his painting was “a disgrace (une ignominie).” (Recorded by Adèle Hugo in her diary for March 27, 1856, and quoted in Stéphane Guégan’s brisk and interesting essay, Delacroix, l’Enfer et l’atelier [Paris: Flammarion, 1998], p. 113.) ↩