Delacroix: the Master with a thunderstorm in his heart

Sex and death: Delacroix’s second, later version of The Death of Sardanapalus
Sex and death: Delacroix’s second, later version of The Death of Sardanapalus Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania

Eugène Delacroix’s lusty, violent paintings appalled his contemporaries  and changed the course of modern art

From the outset of his career, Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was known as the enfant terrible of French painting.

The first picture that he exhibited in public, at the Salon of 1822, was The Barque of Dante: a grisly, tempestuous scene, full of thrashing sinners, in which the Italian poet undertakes a terrifying journey by boat across an infernal lake.

Its aquatic theme and gloomy tone, as well as its compositional instability, as the boat tips perilously on the waters, were all indebted to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), the cornerstone of French Romanticism, which today hangs near it in the Louvre.

The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

 

As a result, the painting was understood at once as a challenge to the polished neoclassicism of Delacroix’s predecessor Jacques-Louis David – whose work, by comparison, suddenly felt passé and stiff. Following Géricault’s death in 1824, Delacroix – the subject of a major new exhibition at the National Gallery – became the pre-eminent Romantic painter of the 19th century.

Three years later, he consolidated this position, by exhibiting The Death of Sardanapalus, a ravishing maelstrom of sensuous excess, depicting the last king of Assyria. Contemplating suicide following a devastating military defeat, the decadent Sardanapalus lies on his bed while his concubines are slaughtered before his eyes.

Cézanne said, 'We all paint in the language of Delacroix’

 

Almost 13ft high, this voluptuous masterwork sealed Delacroix’s notoriety as, in his own words, “the abomination of painting”. One contemporary reviewer described it as “a potboiler with neither top nor bottom” and “a vast colourful sketch lacking sense”.

Lion Hunt, 1860/61 Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

 

Still, Delacroix, who was nothing if not headstrong, liked the work so much that in 1844 he painted a smaller replica, which will be shown at the National Gallery as part of the first substantial exhibition of his art in Britain for half a century.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the infamy of Delacroix in his own day, it is that this artist – whom his friend and champion, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, once compared to “a volcanic crater artfully concealed behind bouquets of flowers” – never did things by halves.

Almost all of Delacroix’s paintings are violent, seething, passionate affairs, throbbing with sex and death. As his first biographer, the French art critic Théophile Silvestre, put it, Delacroix had “a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart”.

Excess and turmoil are the essence of his art. Yet, for all that, Delacroix has never struck me as an especially “modern” painter. Unlike, say, the Impressionists, who came to prominence during the decade following his death, he rarely tackled contemporary life.

His most celebrated work, July 28: Liberty Leading the People, which glorified the Paris uprising of 1830, was an exception. Rather, Delacroix aspired to be like the serious history painters of old. He depicted scenes from literature, mythology, antiquity, and the Bible.

Self Portrait, about 1837 Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

He accepted public commissions to decorate the ceilings of grand buildings. During the final decade of his life, he was hard at work on two murals, as well as a ceiling, for the Chapel of the Holy Angels in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris.

It was the sort of project that an ambitious artist of the Renaissance would have relished. So why is the National Gallery’s new exhibition crediting Delacroix with the rise of modern art? According to one of its curators, Christopher Riopelle, Delacroix exerted a decisive but surprisingly little-known influence upon avant-garde painters in Paris in the second half of the 19th century.

Despite being born the son of a minister, he was always a rebel

 

Moreover, his impact extended into the 20th century, when Picasso, during a phase of producing a torrent of erotic content, became besotted with Delacroix’s sexy canvas The Women of Algiers in their Apartment.  “That bastard,” Picasso supposedly said about Delacroix. “He’s really good.”

More than a century later, Picasso painted 15 tributes to The Women of Algiers, which had been the sensation of the Salon in 1834. One holds the record for the most expensive artwork ever to sell at auction, after it went for £102.6 million at Christie’s in New York last year.

We tend to think that modern art began with the infamous Salon des Refusés of 1863, at which Manet exhibited his bold and controversial Luncheon on the Grass, in which a naked woman enjoys a picnic with two men in contemporary dress.

Yet, says Riopelle, many of the outrageous advances made by Manet and his more radical contemporaries, both in their willingness to shock and their stylistic daring, would have been unthinkable without Delacroix. “Delacroix,” he explains, “is the missing link of modern art.” 

Renoir was arguably Delacroix’s most ardent disciple – but it was Cézanne who put it most memorably when he declared, “We all paint in Delacroix’s language.”

In part, of course, it was the way Delacroix handled paint that compelled younger artists. His brushwork could be remarkably free: unlike his great rival Ingres and other neoclassical artists, who prized a smooth, gleaming finish, Delacroix wanted his compositions to retain the fierce, spontaneous urgency of a painted sketch. “Cold exactitude,” he once said, “is not art.”

St Stephen borne away by his Disciples, 1862 Credit: The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Indeed, along with his supposed disregard for academically “correct” drawing, this apparent lack of finish was something that reactionary critics always held against him. Then there was his intoxicating use of colour. “All this luminous colour,” wrote Cézanne, long after Delacroix’s death.

“It seems to me that it enters the eye like a glass of wine running into your gullet and it makes you drunk straight away.” Delacroix’s most important technical innovation regarding colour – which was taken up by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists – was something that he termed “flochetage”.

This involved embellishing an area of one colour with individual strokes of another, to animate that part of the painting, so that it would seem to vibrate when seen from a distance. Ultimately, Delacroix’s non-naturalistic use of colour anticipated the advent of abstract art during the 20th century.

The way that Delacroix conducted himself as an artist was also strikingly “modern”. Despite being born into privilege, as the son of Napoleon’s foreign minister, he was always a rebel and an outsider. His scorn for convention, coupled with his lifelong belief in the importance of “personal impressions”, or subjective vision, made Delacroix a hero for younger artists, who also wished to overturn tradition.

Apollo Slaying Python, Preliminary Sketch, about 1850 Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

One admirer was Monet, who tried to visit Delacroix, without success, in his studio overlooking a secluded garden on the Left Bank. What a curious thing: Delacroix, an aloof and solitary French painter, had no pupils and so no direct artistic “heirs” – yet he still secured his place as a precocious prophet of modern art.

Or maybe it isn’t so curious after all. As one French journalist put it, writing about a Delacroix retrospective in 1885: “It is a mistake to believe that one can only be contemporary through contemporary subjects.”

And we know from the last entry in his journal, dated June 22 1863, that Delacroix himself understood an essential truth about art: “The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.” That’s timeless.

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art opens at the National Gallery, London on February 17