Delacroix, Eugène

views updated Jun 11 2018


DELACROIX, EUGÈNE (1798–1863), French painter.

Ferdinand-Eugène-Victor Delacroix was a leader of the Romantic movement in the visual arts and, by the second half of the nineteenth century, its quintessential embodiment. Despite his reputation as an iconoclastic modern artist, Delacroix grew increasingly disillusioned with modernity and saw himself as a continuator of the great tradition of history painting begun in the Renaissance. In his later life he was widely perceived as an opponent of tradition and classicism, and an antagonist to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, but in fact he was the last great monumental French painter working in the grand manner.

Delacroix was the son of Charles Delacroix, a government administrator, and Victoire Oeben, the daughter of a successful cabinetmaker. It was rumored that his biological father was the prominent statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, whom Delacroix strongly resembled. Delacroix distinguished himself as a student at the prominent Lycée imperial (now Louis le Grand) before entering the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin to train as a painter. There he was particularly influenced by Théodore Géricault. While still a student he produced a number of prints that reveal his early attraction to Liberal politics.

Delacroix was a great admirer of literature and exhibited a precocious taste for Romantic writers (Goethe, Byron, and Sir Walter Scott) and those literary figures of the past whom they admired (especially Shakespeare and Dante). His first submission to the Salon, the major biennial art exhibition in Paris, was Dante's Barque (1822), which combined these newly fashionable literary tastes with an eclectic mix of sources from classical sculpture, Michelangelo, Antoine-Jean Gros, and Géricault, and won the artist considerable acclaim when it was purchased by the government.

For the next two Salons, Delacroix submitted paintings treating the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832). The Greek cause was championed by Liberals and other parties opposed to the Restoration government of Charles X, who favored the Ottoman Turks in the struggle. While Delacroix's paintings protested the suffering of the Greeks at the hands of the Turks, they also revealed a morbid fascination with cruelty, rape, and miscegenation. In the 1820s he painted numerous pictures of violent subjects drawn from Romantic literature and France's medieval past. His penchant for images of gratuitous death and destruction found full expression in The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), which depicted the last Assyrian king immolating himself, his concubines, chattel, and riches on an enormous pyre, rather than let them pass to the conquering Medes. The painting's dynamic composition, rich palette of reds and gold, and painterly bravura, combined with the outrageous subject, placed Delacroix at the center of the Romantic rebellion against official art.

The Revolution of 1830 renewed Delacroix's overt engagement with domestic politics and inspired his most famous work, Liberty Guiding the People (1830). Delacroix pictured the violent insurrection that brought down Charles X through the image of a group of revolutionaries rushing across a barricade near the Pont d'Arcole in Paris. The revolutionaries, who rise up so heroically under-neath the tricolor flag, include workers and street urchins, but also a bourgeois and members of both sexes, suggesting broad support for the July Revolution. In approaching the work, Delacroix was torn between, on the one hand, the high moral purpose and universality conveyed through classical nude figures and, on the other, the drama and specificity of a realistic portrayal of contemporary events. The central woman ingeniously combines idealized, allegorical elements (nudity and Phrygian cap) with the unidealized dress of a working-class woman. Her profiled head and raised arm have the flatness and simplicity of an emblem, while the sculptural form of the rest of her body joins her to the real world of historical events. The painting was well received, and the new government purchased the picture and awarded Delacroix the Legion of Honor.

In 1832 Delacroix traveled with a diplomatic mission to convince the sultan of Morocco to acquiesce to the French occupation of Algeria. The voyage was a revelation to the artist. In a variation of the myth of the noble savage, he claimed to have found a living antiquity in contemporary North African society, every bit as beautiful as classical Greece or Rome and far more inspiring for his artistic pursuits than the traditional trip to Italy. He filled seven sketchbooks with brilliant drawings and watercolors recording his experience. Throughout the rest of his career he created paintings from his sketches, notes, and remembrances. These mix ethnographic observation and orientalist fantasy in complex ways, though toward the end of his life they increasingly provided an escape from modern society into the more elemental world he believed North Africa to be.

Throughout his visit to North Africa, Delacroix tried to gain entrance into a harem, a prime locus of fantasy for European men. Only on his return voyage, during a brief visit to Algiers, was he able to do so, though some scholars doubt a visit to a harem ever took place. Upon returning to France, he completed his Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), in which three women sit indolently around a hookah while their servant draws back a curtain. Nineteenth-century viewers reveled in the purported accuracy of the picture, which allowed them to penetrate the space of the harem. The true brilliance of the picture lies in the rich colors, sensuous brushwork, and lambent atmosphere, all of which answered to the European desires surrounding the subject.

During the latter half of his career Delacroix continued to pursue literary and historical subjects associated with Romanticism, and many of his major works evince a continuing fascination with troubled heroes and the barbaric underside of civilization. At the same time, he became increasingly concerned to emulate the grand manner and traditional subject matter of such past masters as Rubens and Veronese. He received major commissions from the July Monarchy for mural decorations for the Salon of the King (1833) and the library of the Chamber of Deputies (begun 1838) in the Bourbon Palace (now the National Assembly), and the library of the Senate in Luxembourg Palace (1840). Other major monumental commissions include the Chapel of Holy Angels in St. Sulpice (1949), the ceiling of the Gallery of Apollo in the Louvre (1850), and the Salon of Peace in the Hôtel de Ville (1851).

Delacroix's literary output was considerable. As a young man he considered a career as a writer and completed an unpublished play and novella. During the course of his career he published important essays on Michelangelo, Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, Antoine-Jean Gros, and Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. He kept a private journal, remarkable for its candor and clarity of expression, from 1822 to 1824, and again from 1847 to the end of his life. His journal and letters were published posthumously and have become major sources for understanding nineteenth-century aesthetic thought.

Official recognition was slow to come to Delacroix. In 1855, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, he was honored with a retrospective exhibition as one of the four most prominent living artists in France, but only in 1857, on his eighth attempt, was he admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts. His influence was enormous. Cézanne, the impressionists, and many of the postimpressionists, among others, found direct inspiration in his imaginative imagery, technical innovations, brilliant color, and lively brushwork. Today he is considered one of the greatest French painters of all time.

See alsoFrance; Géricault, Théodore; Painting; Revolutions of 1830; Romanticism.


Primary Sources

Delacroix, Eugène. Correspondance générale d'Eugène Delacroix. 5 vols. Paris, 1936–1938.

——. Ecrits sur l'art. Paris, 1988.

——. Journal, 1822–1863. Paris, 1996. Originally published 1950.

Secondary Sources

Fraser, Elisabeth A. Delacroix, Art and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2004. Relates Delacroix's art from the Bourbon Restoration to politics, constructions of the family, and practices of collecting and art criticism.

Hannoosh, Michele. Painting and the Journal of Eugène Delacroix. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Jobert, Barthélémy. Delacroix. Princeton, N.J., 1998. A comprehensive survey of Delacroix's career.

Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue, 1816–1831. 6 vols. Oxford, U.K., 1981–1989. Catalogue raisonné with commentary.

Wright, Beth S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000. Collection of critical essays on various aspects of Delacroix's art and career.

David O'Brien

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix

The French painter Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) repudiated the neoclassic manner and developed a freer and more romantic style with a particular emphasis on color.

For 40 years Eugène Delacroix was one of the most prominent and controversial painters in France. Although the intense emotional expressiveness of his work placed the artist squarely in the midst of the general romantic outpouring of European art, he always remained an individual phenomenon and did not create a school. As a personality and as a painter, he was admired by the impressionists, postimpressionists, and symbolists who came after him.

Born on April 28, 1798, at Charenton-Saint-Maurice, the son of an important public official, Delacroix grew up in comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances in spite of the troubled times. He received a good classical education at the Lycée Impérial. He entered the studio of Pierre Narcisse Guérin in 1815, where he met Théodore Géricault.

Early Style

Delacroix's public career was launched with a flourish at the Salon of 1822, in which he exhibited Dante and Virgil in Hell. Large, somewhat hastily painted, still traditional in its bas-relief type of design, it was nevertheless novel in subject matter and in the emotional intensity conveyed by powerful, contorted forms and smoldering, vibrant tones.

Delacroix shared the new Anglophilia of French culture, played the role of a dandy, read Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott, visited England, and was impressed by English artists such as Richard Bonington and John Constable. Indeed, Constable's landscapes are supposed to have influenced Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, shown in 1824. An immense canvas, almost 14 feet high, it was obviously designed to create an impression at the Salon. Although Baron Gros called it "the massacre of painting," the government purchased it. Based on an incident in the Greek war of independence, the painting is as exotic as Delacroix's later North African pictures and is filled with a romantic taste for violence.

Among the dozen paintings Delacroix submitted to the Salon of 1827-1828, the immense, baroque Death of Sardanapalus, based on a theme by Byron, is remarkable for its theatrical fervor and luxuriant color. Liberty Leading the People, inspired by the Revolution of 1830, closed the first phase of Delacroix's career. It is almost the only important work, except for the Massacre at Chios, that had any connection with contemporary history: the scene was Parisian but the interpretation was allegorical.

Mature Style

The stimulus of a fortuitous 6-month trip to Morocco in 1832 had a lifelong effect on Delacroix's development and gave him an inexhaustible store of pictorial materials. The most immediate result was Women of Algiers in Their Apartment ( 1834), in which an Oriental subject allowed for the kind of "visual feast" and poetic effect that he always considered the proper aims of painting.

Also notable among the pictures of the 1830s and 1840s by Delacroix were historical scenes painted on commission, such as the Battle of Taillebourg (1837) and the Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (1840). They reflect his natural taste for the grand manner and for large-scale compositions, as well as his persistent enthusiasm for the dynamic style of Peter Paul Rubens and the mundane splendor of Paolo Veronese.

Those who believe that Delacroix turned back to classicism in the 1830s could point to his painting Medea (1838), a picture that could almost have been painted by Jacques Louis David. "I am a pure classic," Delacroix insisted at this time, only to confess in a paradoxical counter-statement, "If by romanticism they mean the free manifestation of my personal impressions … then I am a romantic and have been one since I was fifteen."

In 1833 Delacroix began his career as a mural painter, and in the next 28 years he executed paintings in Paris in the Chamber of Deputies (Palais-Bourbon), the Senate (Luxembourg Palace), the church of St-Denis-du-St-Sacrement, the Louvre, the City Hall, and St-Sulpice. Drawing heavily on classical and biblical themes and aided by assistants, he employed a technique in which the colors were mixed with wax. Although many of the subjects were traditional, the style in which they were carried out was full of romantic fire and excitement (Attila Hemicycle, finished 1847, Palais-Bourbon). In the ceiling panel of the Louvre, the Triumph of Apollo (1851), Delacroix achieved a highly successful baroque manner of his own. The murals are among the finest French decorative paintings.

Late Style

In the 1850s Delacroix's natural tendency toward freedom in the treatment of form and looseness of touch became more marked: Marphise (1852) and the sketch for Eurydice (1856) are good examples. Such works are reminiscent of the boldness of the late Titian—and of the late Auguste Renoir. Brilliance and luminosity of color increase; all forms are fused together in a dense pictorial whole.

There is an appreciable increase in Christian themes in the final period of Delacroix's career. "I was much impressed by the Requiem Mass," he wrote in his Journal (Nov. 2, 1854). "I thought of all that religion has to offer the imagination, and at the same time of its appeal to man's deepest feelings." The Christ on the Lake of Genesareth (1854) in Baltimore illustrates the rough-textured, agitated, and tumultuous style that often appeared in his final years of painting. This theme, which seems to have had a broad symbolic significance for the artist, must have become truly obsessive, for there are seven different versions of it.

In the last 10 or 12 years of his life Delacroix showed a renewed interest in the "pagan" North African subjects of his Moroccan experience of 1832. Among the most striking are the tiger and lion hunts and scenes of animal violence, which were created as much from imagination and from Rubens as from direct observation of animal behavior in Africa or Paris. Perhaps the sketch Lion Hunt (1854), done in preparation for a large painting in Bordeaux, is the most astonishing of these works. The wild, explosive design, created by fluid patches of warm color, has very properly been considered an anticipation of Fauvism.

Charles Baudelaire's enthusiastic praise of Delacroix's contribution to the Salon of 1859 was not enough to outweigh the bitter criticism. In any case, the painter decided not to exhibit at the Salon again. In 1861, disappointed by the poor response to his new mural paintings in St-Sulpice (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), Delacroix wrote that he did not see much point in continuing with work that interested only 30 people in Paris. And yet, if he had been offered other commissions and had had the strength to do them, he would have gone on. By that time artistic work had become his only passion, his only solace. Two years later failing health overcame his determined will, and Delacroix died in Paris on Aug. 13, 1863.

Delacroix's Influence

In the early years of his career Delacroix found black a valuable "color." Later he said, "Gray is the enemy of all paintings"; and finally he wrote, "Banish all earth colors." Although he does not seem to have used a fully spectral palette, he moved in that direction, exploited complementary contrasts, and demonstrated the usefulness of separate touches and the possibility of constructing a picture by means of individual, interlacing brush-strokes and patches of color. These devices were developed further by the impressionists and postimpressionists. On the other hand, the symbolists followed Delacroix in the pictorial projection of inner, imaginative fantasies and in the abstractly expressive use of color.

Further Reading

Delacroix's Journal was translated by Walter Pach in 1937. Lucy Norton did another translation of the greater part of the Journal in 1951. The most comprehensive study of Delacroix is René Huyghe, Delacroix (trans. 1963). The best short account is Lee Johnson, Delacroix (1963). Independent in outlook, and with many unfamiliar comparative illustrations, is Frank A. Trapp, The Attainment of Delacroix (1970). Two excellent but more specialized books are George P. Mras, Eugène Delacroix's Theory of Art (1966), and Jack J. Spector, The Murals of Eugène Delacroix at Saint-Sulpice (1967). □

Delacroix, (Ferdinand Victor) Eugène

views updated May 29 2018

Delacroix, (Ferdinand Victor) Eugène (1798–1863) French painter, the greatest French artist of Romanticism. Success came at his first Paris salon (1822), when he sold The Barque of Dante and, two years later, The Massacre at Chios. A visit to Morocco (1832) inspired a rich collection of sketches. His work underwent a major change in the 1830s, when he began to exploit divisionism (placing complementary colours side by side to obtain greater vibrancy). He was one of France's best monumental history painters and influenced many late 19th-century progressive artists, especially Van Gogh.;

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