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Delacroix: last of the Old Masters or first of the new?

Delacroix: last of the Old Masters or first of the new?

He painted classically inspired scenes, but his energetic style paved the way for the Impressionists

He painted classically inspired scenes, but his energetic style paved the way for the Impressionists

Joe Lloyd | May 11th 2018

Few artists have delighted and scandalised the public as much as Eugène Delacroix. The greatest French painter of the first half of the 19th century, who is the subject of a landmark retrospective at the Louvre, became famous as a young man for his enormous paintings of dramatic and often violent scenes. Critics saw the intensity of his style as a sign of inner melancholy and turmoil and he was cast as the ultimate Romantic, a reputation that persists to this day.

Romanticism was a cultural movement that began in Britain and Germany in the late 18th century and soon spread to the rest of Europe. It prioritised inspiration and individual experience over the rational values of the Enlightenment. In early 19th century France, the dominant artistic movement was neo-classicism. Neo-classical painters, like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, specialised in calm compositions, precise drawing and clear lines.

Romantic painters, by contrast, aimed to provoke powerful emotions with vivid colours and expressive brushstrokes. Delacroix used paint to convey mood, meaning and movement. In doing so, he was inspired by Old Masters like Titian, Veronese, Rubens and Rembrandt. His own style of painting would go on to inspire successive generations of artists, from the Impressionists to the abstract expressionists. He stands at a crossroads between tradition and modernity.

Almost everything Delacroix painted – from Biblical scenes to bouquets of flowers, big cats to creased bedsheets – thrums with vitality. “This strange mysterious quality,” wrote the poet Charles Baudelaire on Delacroix’s death in 1863, “is the invisible, the impalpable, the dream, the nerves, the soul; and this he has done...with no other means but colour and contour.” After seeing this exhibition, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

 

“Scenes from the Massacres at Chios” (1824)

Ahead of the biennial salon at the Académie des Beaux-Arts – then the most prestigious exhibition in the world – Delacroix searched for a scene that would allow him to make a mark. He found it in the Greek War of Independence, a cause célèbre among Western intellectuals. In 1822, in retaliation for a revolt on the Greek mainland, the Ottoman army attacked the island of Chios. The vast majority of the 100,000-strong population was killed or sold into slavery

Gargantuan in scale, Delacroix’s painting presents a litany of abjection. In the foreground, two young boys embrace as if for the last time, a distraught wife holds her dying husband and an Ottoman cavalryman has a nude hostage tied to his horse. Most wrenchingly, a mother lies dead while her baby prods hopefully at her breast. Behind these figures, at the painting’s centre, Delacroix shows a massacre in process, with soldiers cutting down fleeing women. The scene is cropped at the sides, hinting at further barbarity beyond the limits of the canvas.

Critics were taken aback by the painting’s goriness and its radically modern style. Delacroix used wildly clashing colours, now sadly faded, and drew together a number of different episodes rather than focusing on a single central hero. Antoine-Jean Gros, a neo-classical painter, called it “the massacre of painting.” Delacroix was also criticised for making the Greeks look like dejected peasants, rather than suitable heirs to the warriors of antiquity. But the painting was immediately bought by the French state – a sale that made Delacroix’s name.

 

“The Death of Sardanapalus” (1827)

If “Chios” had ruffled the feathers of conservative critics, “The Death of Sardanapalus” appalled them. Inspired by a 1821 play by Lord Byron, it depicts a fictitious Assyrian king who, on learning that his armies had been defeated, burnt to death his eunuchs, concubines and himself. Delacroix embellished this story by having Sardanapalus execute his entire retinue. The result is an orgiastic scene of mass murder. In the France of the late 1820s, ruled by the increasingly despotic king Charles X, Delacroix’s vision was shocking.

Like “Chios”, “Sardanapalus” has an unconventional composition. The focus is on the king himself, reclining impassively on silk bedclothes. His gleaming robes are even whiter than the marble flesh of his doomed harem. A golden elephant head at the corner of his bed has closed eyes, as if to block out the horror. The dominance of red hints at both the blood, which is largely unseen, and the fire to come. Delacroix uses visible brushstrokes to convey dynamism: it’s as though he has frozen a single frame and the slaughter could resume at any second. Like “Chios”, “The Death of Sardanapalus” provokes conflicting emotions in the viewer. Do we recoil in disgust or marvel at the vividness?

 

“28 July: Liberty Leading the People” (1830)

On July 27th 1830, a few weeks after Charles X had signed a set of anti-democratic ordinances, Paris rose up in revolt. By the end of the third day of protests, the last Bourbon king had been deposed. Delacroix painted his epic scene of revolutionaries astride a barricade a few months later. “I have undertaken a modern subject,” he wrote to his brother, “and if I have won no victories for the nation at least I shall paint for it.”

Unlike in “Chios”, here Delacroix centres the action on a heroic protagonist: an incarnation of Liberty herself holding a rifle in one hand and a tricolor in the other. She wears a Phrygian cap, associated with freed Roman slaves. While she bears her chest, she is not eroticised. Her combination of robust, earthly features and celestial radiance places her somewhere between a woman-of-the-people and a goddess. Delacroix modelled her form on the Venus de Milo, which was discovered in 1820 and arrived at the Louvre the following year. The revolutionaries around her, who range from a prosperous gentleman in a top hat to a child labourer brandishing a pistol, give the sense of a nation united against the Bourbons. The government bought the painting as a gesture of good will towards France’s left wing, but a few months later it was hidden away in an attic, before being quietly returned to the artist in 1832.

 

“Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834)

In 1830 France invaded Algeria. Shortly afterwards, a diplomatic mission was sent to Morocco, led by Count Charles de Morny, who, seeking cultured company, invited Delacroix along for the ride. The trip was stimulating for Delacroix, who saw in North Africa “the beauty of the ancients.” Memories from the expedition would furnish Delacroix with subject matter for the remainder of his career.

The “Women of Algiers”, more restrained than his earlier paintings, is a sumptuous depiction of a harem. Three women and their servant are draped in an abundance of rich fabrics, surrounded by similarly lavish cushions, curtains, carpets and wall tiles. The room glows with light streaming in from an unseen window. One of the women appears lost in thought, while her companions share a moment of intimacy over a hookah. The servant, who we see from behind, pulls back a curtain, adding an element of theatricality to the scene. The painting was admired by Paul Cézanne and Auguste Renoir, and entranced Pablo Picasso so much that he produced a series of 15 canvases in homage.

 

“The Sea from the Heights of Dieppe” (1852)

Delacroix has been described as “the last Old Master”, his paintings a culmination of four centuries of European art. But even during his later years when he was working on state-funded commissions, many of his contemporaries still saw him as a moderniser.

Looking at this quickness of the brushstrokes in this painting, it’s clear how Delacroix, although he painted from memory rather than en plain air, laid the ground for the Impressionists. He uses thick dashes of paint to capture the churning of the waves and the shifting of clouds. The fragile sailing boats dance in the wind, at the mercy of the sea and the sky.

Delacroix (1798–1863) Louvre, Paris, until July 23rd and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from September 17th to January 6th