Andrea here, musing today about art and history, two subjects near and dear to my heart. One of the fundamental reasons I love the Regency era is because it was a time of challenging of the old order and served as a catalyst for new ways of thinking about all aspects of society—the birth of the Modern! Art was no exception. The blossoming of Romanticism—individuals suddenly free to express an emotional reaction to the world around them—ignited a whole new realm of creativity.
Color, brushstrokes, draftsmanship—the traditional ways of depicting subjects gave way to experimentation and imagination. Turner began dabbling in a bold new way that inspired Impressionism. And the French artist Delacroix . . . hmmm, well, Delacroix has been a conundrum to art critics over the years. But a grand new retrospective of his work currently on view at the Met in New York City, is generating raves and new appreciation of what a revolutionary artist he was. (You can listen to the Met curator of the exhibit give a short talk on Delacroix’s genius here.)
“French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was one of the greatest creative figures of the nineteenth century. Coming of age after the fall of Napoleon, he reconnected the present to the past on his own terms.” —The Met
I have to confess, it took me a while to understand Delacroix. I saw him as one of a number of artists who depicted historical scenes with great technical skill, but little “genius.” I slowly began to realize what I was missing when I started to read a little about him, and look a little more closely at his art. Oh, was I wrong.
Before I get to why I adore his art, now that I see it in a different way, let’s take a brief look at the artist himself. Like his paintings, his parentage is . . . open to interpretation. I like to believe what many historians think is likely: that his real father was Tallyrand, the legendary (and Machiavellian) diplomat who figures so prominently in early 19th century European politics. Tallyrand was a close family friend (perhaps too close) and throughout his life protected the Delacroix’s career. (In adult life, Delacroix greatly resembled the famous diplomat, both physically and temperamentally.)
Born in 1798, Delacroix received an early education with a deep grounding in the classical subjects, which served as artistic inspiration all his life. Orphaned at age sixteen, he began his formal art training soon after. His first major breakthrough came when his painting, The Barque of Dante, (shown above) was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1822.
In 1825, he made a trip to England and met Sir Thomas Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington (two of my favorite painters.) He was influenced by how Bonington and Constable depicted landscapes, and his own style became looser in terms of precise outline and use of color. In addition to classical subjects, he began to take inspiration from Shakespeare and especially from Byron, whose romantic poetry struck a kindred chord with him.
Delacroix also said he was much influenced by music: " . . . nothing can be compared with the emotion caused by music; that it expresses incomparable shades of feeling." Beethoven and Chopin were particular favorites. (His self-portrait is above.)
Recognized as a leader of the Romantic movement, Delacroix seemed to fade from public perception as the Impressionism took the art world by storm (even though Cezanne and van Gogh were great admirers) and in modern times he’s been relegated to the secondary ranks of influential painters. But today his genius is being rediscovered and given its rightful place in art history.
So, back to why I’ve become a big fan. I love the comment in the New York Times review of the exhibit, which I think captures why Delacroix is such a mystery to many people: “While he opened the door to Modern painting as a process, he kept it tightly closed to modern life.”
I think that fact that he chose mostly classical subject or exotic settings (he was very taken with North Africa, which he visited on a diplomatic mission.) which tend to make a viewer overlook his startling creativity with color, brushstrokes and distortion of space and perspective. The powerful compositions, where he uses light and dark to draw the eye to a focal point, are, I think brilliant, as are the brilliant use of color—usually red— as dramatic punctuation. In his last journal entry, Delacroix wrote: “The first merit of painting is to be a feast for the eye.” Well, his works are a veritable banquet.
Pablo Picasso perhaps said it best when he told fellow painter Francoise Gilot: “That bastard. He’s really good.”
So what about you—are you a fan of Delacroix, or is he just one of those names that vaguely rings a bell from an art history survey course? Do you like the paintings shown here, or do you prefer a different style of painting? Who is YOUR favorite painter?