Pas­sion­ate pic­tures

Vivid re­al­i­ties and deep truths in the work of Eugène Delacroix

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY LARA MAR­LOWE

France had not held a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of Eugène Delacroix’s work since the cen­te­nary of his death in 1963. An ex­hi­bi­tion at the Lou­vre this spring and sum­mer, which has now moved to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum in New York,, shows how rel­e­vant the French painter’s oeu­vre re­mains to­day.

Delacroix (1798-1863) broached enmity be­tween Mus­lims and Chris­tians in two of his ear­li­est and best known paint­ings: The Mas­sacre at Chios (1824) and Greece on the Ru­ins of Mis­so­longhi (1826). Turk­ish Ot­toman troops had mas­sa­cred the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the Greek is­land of Chios in 1822. The Greek city of Mis­so­longhi was be­sieged and con­quered by the Ot­tomans in 1826.

The poet Charles Baude­laire, who was one of Delacroix’s most avid sup­port­ers, wrote that “ev­ery­thing in his oeu­vre is des­o­la­tion… smok­ing, burn­ing cities, raped women, chil­dren thrown un­der the hooves of horses or stabbed by deliri­ous moth­ers”.

Delacroix’s por­trayal of hu­man suf­fer­ing was the an­tithe­sis of neo-clas­si­cal paint­ing, which by the 1820s was go­ing out of fash­ion. It was not un­like the work of mod­ern pho­to­jour­nal­ists. In­deed, The Mas­sacre at Chios has been com­pared to the Al­ge­rian pho­tog­ra­pher Hocine’s 1997 Madonna of Ben­talha, which won the World Press Photo Award.

Delacroix’s most fa­mous work of re­portage – in­deed his most fa­mous work, full stop – was his 1830 Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple. The painter watched the Paris ri­ots of July 27th-29th, 1830 at close range. His Lib­erty is a bare-breasted wo­man, bran­dish­ing the tri­colour and strid­ing across a bar­ri­cade strewn with bod­ies. “If I did not fight for my coun­try, at least I painted for her,” he wrote. The state pur­chased “Lib­erty” for the Musée du Lux­em­bourg, but quickly with­drew the paint­ing from ex­hi­bi­tion, out of fear she might in­spire other re­volts. To­day, she is a na­tional trea­sure deemed too pre­cious to send to New York.

Delacroix’s Greek paint­ings were in­spired by the Bri­tish poet Lord By­ron, surely a re­buke to any Brex­i­teer who doubts the shared cul­tural his­tory of Bri­tain and Europe. Like a mod­ern-day po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, By­ron in­flamed the youth of Europe with his es­pousal of the Greek cause. The dead hand emerg­ing from the rub­ble of Mis­so­longhi in an el­e­gant sleeve is that of Lord By­ron, who died there.

French aris­to­crats who fled to Eng­land dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion pre­cip­i­tated a wave of “An­glo­ma­nia” when they re­turned to restora­tion France. Shake­speare, Wal­ter Scott and By­ron were trans­lated into French.

In 1825, Delacroix chose to travel to Eng­land, not Italy, to pur­sue paint­ing. Back in Paris, he fre­quented Alexan­dre Du­mas, Vic­tor Hugo, La­mar­tine and Sten­dahl, who like Delacroix loved English lit­er­a­ture and cloth­ing.

From Bri­tish painters, Delacroix learned to ap­pre­ci­ate cat­e­gories con­sid­ered mi­nor in France: land­scapes, por­traits, still lifes and animal scenes. The ti­gress in Young Tiger Play­ing with its Mother (1830) is re­gal as an odal­isque. Delacroix set the fe­lines against a ru­ral land­scape, far re­moved from the Paris zoo where he sketched them.

Fam­ily con­nec­tions


“If by ro­man­ti­cism one means the free man­i­fes­ta­tion of my per­sonal im­pulses, dis­tanc­ing my­self from the rules set in schools, and my dis­taste for the recipes of the academy, I must con­fess that not only am I a ro­man­tic, I was from the age of 15”

Delacroix’s fa­ther Charles served as a for­eign min­is­ter for revo­lu­tion­ary France. He lost his job to Tal­leyrand. A per­sis­tent ru­mour, fanned by the painter’s phys­i­cal re­sem­blance to Napoleon’s great diplo­mat, said Tal­leyrand had an af­fair with Delacroix’s pretty mother Vic­toire and was his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther.

In any case, the Delacroix fam­ily were ru­ined when Eugène was a teenager by the fall of Napoleon and the Bour­bon restora­tion. Eugène de­cided to be­come a painter at the age of 17. Seven years later, he painted his first mas­ter­piece, The Bar­que of Dante, work­ing long hours while a friend read Dante’s In­ferno aloud. In the paint­ing, the Ital­ian poet is guided by Vir­gil in a pre­car­i­ous boat while ghoul­ish fig­ures of the damned de­vour each other in the black wa­ters of the Styx.

Delacroix showed Dante to great ac­claim at the 1822 sa­lon. “Glory is not a vain word for me,” he wrote in his di­ary two years later. “The sound of praise fills one with gen­uine hap­pi­ness.” Yet through­out his long ca­reer, Delacroix would fall in and out of favour. He was not ad­mit­ted to the fine arts sec­tion of the French academy un­til the age of 57, af­ter seven failed can­di­da­cies.

The Death of Sar­dana­palus (1827) was sav­aged by crit­ics and pro­voked a scan­dal. The king’s direc­tor of fine arts sum­moned Delacroix

and or­dered him to “change styles”. The paint­ing is so large that it can­not be moved from the ro­man­tic paint­ing sec­tion of the Lou­vre. It shows the last Assyr­ian king of Nin­eveh, watch­ing im­pas­sively as his con­cu­bines, eu­nuchs and horses are slaugh­tered around him. Sar­dana­palus is de­feated, and has de­cided to im­mo­late him­self with all his pos­ses­sions.

The scene is the­atri­cal, chaotic, ex­otic, or­gias­tic. The name Sar­dana­palus be­came a by­word in France for ex­cess. When Do­minique Strauss-Kahn was ac­cused of pimp­ing at a trial in 2015, a pros­e­cu­tion lawyer called the former IMF direc­tor a “mod­ern-day Sar­dana­palus”.

Quin­tes­sen­tial ro­man­tic

Sar­dana­palus sealed Delacroix’s rep­u­ta­tion as the quin­tes­sen­tial ro­man­tic painter. Asked if he ac­cepted the la­bel, Delacroix said, “If by ro­man­ti­cism one means the free man­i­fes­ta­tion of my per­sonal im­pulses, dis­tanc­ing my­self from the rules set in schools, and my dis­taste for the recipes of the academy, I must con­fess that not only am I a ro­man­tic, I was from the age of 15.”

In 1832, Delacroix ac­com­pa­nied an en­voy of the French king to Spain, Morocco and Al­ge­ria. He filled hun­dreds of pages of note­books with sketches, wa­ter­colours and text. He would go back to these notes for decades af­ter­wards, bas­ing paint­ings on the sketches, like a jour­nal­ist us­ing ear­lier work to write books. France had in­vaded Al­ge­ria only two years be­fore, and re­la­tions be­tween North African Arabs and French colo­nial­ists were tense.

For the sake of safety, Delacroix could not go out with­out an armed es­cort. He de­spaired of see­ing Arab women, un­til the chaouch or lo­cal pub­lic ser­vant who ran the port of Al­giers al­lowed him to visit his harem. Delacroix ful­filled ori­en­tal­ist fan­tasies in his paint­ing of

Women of Al­giers in their Apart­ment. Three Arab women sit in­do­lently in fil­tered light, waited on by a Moor­ish ser­vant. The paint­ing ex­udes calm and si­lence. It was ad­mired by Manet, Renoir, Gau­guin and Matisse. And it in­spired Pi­casso’s Women of Al­giers, which sold for $179 mil­lion in 2015.

Like ro­man­tic po­etry or music, Delacroix’s paint­ings are so de­tailed, so rich, that they some­times over­whelm you. A por­tion of a paint­ing ex­cerpted from the rest, for ex­am­ple the wo­man on the far left in Women of Al­giers, can prove more ef­fec­tive on its own.

Cu­ra­tors of the Lou­vre-Metropoli­tan ex­hi­bi­tion call 1822-1832 Delacroix’s “con­quer­ing decade”. Vir­tu­ally all of his best-known paint­ings were com­pleted dur­ing this pe­riod, af­ter which he aban­doned all mod­ern and po­lit­i­cal sub­jects. In 1848, for ex­am­ple, the year of yet an­other French rev­o­lu­tion, Delacroix painted neo-baroque flo­ral ar­range­ments. He was hos­tile to the bru­tal re­al­ism of Courbet, who was 21 years his ju­nior, and whose paint­ing had come into vogue.

There are two the­o­ries about why Delacroix largely de­voted him­self to the paint­ing of large mu­rals, com­mis­sioned by church and state, from the 1830s on. Sébastien Al­lard of the Lou­vre spec­u­lates that of­fi­cial France wanted to sup­port him as a lead­ing artist, but also sought to curb his dar­ing. Delacroix him­self be­lieved that large dec­o­ra­tive mu­rals would en­sure his place in his­tory. He painted fres­coes in the se­nate and na­tional assem­bly, on the ceil­ing of the Apollo gallery in the Lou­vre, and in the église Sant-Sulpice.

When af­ter a 23-year break, Delacroix re­sumed keep­ing a di­ary in 1847, he recorded his ef­forts to keep his paint­ing sim­ple, to avoid the rich fabrics and jew­els and ex­huber­ant colours that char­ac­terised his ear­lier work. “My palette no longer wan­ders,” he wrote.

Had the lead­ing ro­man­tic painter been in­tim­i­dated by crit­ics? In later years, Delacroix favoured smaller for­mats. He painted from me­mory and adopted out­moded themes from his­tor­i­cal nov­els.

Delacroix also de­vel­oped a pas­sion for the sea. He could “stand with­out mov­ing for more than half an hour on the sand, touch­ing the waves, with­out tir­ing of their fury, of their com­ing in and out, of foam and peb­bles,” he wrote in his di­ary. His Sea from the Heights of

Dieppe (1852) was painted 20 years be­fore the Monet can­vas that gave its name to the im­pres­sion­ist move­ment, but Delacroix’s seascape, with its barely sug­gested sail­boats on wa­ter re­flect­ing the sky, could eas­ily qual­ify as the first im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing.

■ Delacroix is at the Metropoli­tan Musem, New York ,un­til Jan­uary 6th


Clock­wise from far left: Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple (1830) by Eu­gene Delacroix, com­mem­o­rat­ing the July rev­o­lu­tion, which top­pled King Charles X of France;The Death of Sar­dana­palus (1827); Self Por­trait in Green Vest (1837); The Bar­que of Dante (1822).

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