Metropolitan Museum of Art, 314 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 176 pp., $30.00 (paper) (distributed by Yale University Press)
Color is Eugène Delacroix’s hero. He fights for color. He lives for color. His oil paintings are luxurious orchestrations of feverish reds, velvety blues, dusky purples, astringent oranges, and shimmering greens. In his works on paper, some of the same colors, presented as isolated elements, become refreshingly austere. There is nothing that this giant of nineteenth-century French painting cannot do with color. If his art is uneasy, it’s because his color is never easy. He flirts with chromatic chaos. He yearns for chromatic catharsis. “The very sight of my palette,” he once wrote, “freshly set out with the colors in their contrasts is enough to fire my enthusiasm.” However alien we may find some of his gaudy fantasies and megalomaniacal ambitions, there is no question that he is an artist who knows how to fill our eyes.
What’s demoralizing about the retrospective that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is that Delacroix’s coloristic genius is so hard to find. The sepulchral installation muffles and sometimes even strangles his work. Is this the museum’s idea of what it takes to set a mood worthy of Delacroix’s reputation as the leader of the Romantic movement in France? There is hardly any ambient light in the galleries. Most of the walls are painted a blackish-blue or a brownish-purple. Museumgoers find themselves thrust from one awkwardly spotlit painting to another, as if they were seeing them as part of the Disney World Haunted Mansion ride. Asher Miller, the curator who organized the retrospective, may have worried that if he didn’t give Delacroix’s work a shot of horror-show lighting, the artist, who was sixty-five when he died in Paris in 1863, would seem a figure adrift in early-twenty-first-century Manhattan. Miller and his team have refused to stand back and let him speak for himself. They’ve turned even Delacroix’s subtlest dramas into murky melodramas.
There is no question that a Delacroix retrospective poses challenges. At a time when we are grappling with doubts and diminishments in so many areas of our social, cultural, and political life, museumgoers may find themselves nonplussed by the bulldozer Romanticism of some of his work. Delacroix’s grandest canvases, along with Hector Berlioz’s operatic and symphonic works and Victor Hugo’s plays, novels, and poems, have a sweep and an insistence that can strike us as not so much authoritative as authoritarian. We may prefer our Romantic painters to be philosophical and skeptical and neurotic, like the German Casper David Friedrich, or pastoral and contemplative, like the Englishmen John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
Delacroix, who very much admired Constable’s landscapes, certainly had a quietistic side, which was reflected in the sensitivity with which he painted darkened interiors, shadowy glades, and boats in shimmering water. He was a man of many parts. Even in his own day…
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