Delacroix’s Modernism

Eugène Delacroix: Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, 1835, oil on canvas, 29 1/8 by 23 5/8 inches. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. © Roger-Viollet.


FEW ARTISTS HAVE had so decisive an impact on modern art as the painter and graphic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, for example, was partly derived from Delacroix’s Scenes from the Massacres of Chios: Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery (1824, not in the exhibition). In addition to tragic subject matter—the murder of innocent women, children, and animals at the hands of a tyrant—the two pictures share an episodic format and alternating pattern of light and dark. Picasso’s detail of a wild-eyed horse, too, may have been taken from Massacres of Chios. Almost two decades later, Picasso returned to Delacroix. This time, he painted no less than fifteen versions of Delacroix’s compelling but morally compromised Women of Algiers in Their Apartment from 1834. (The languid Orientalism of Women proposes that sexual slavery is like an afternoon at the spa.) “That bastard,” said the Spanish artist who brooked no rivals, “he’s really good.”1 In fact, Picasso was positively haunted by Delacroix, and he wasn’t the only one.

The young Odilon Redon, whose drawings and lithographs of devils, smiling spiders, and floating eyeballs helped launch the Symbolist movement, spotted the elderly Romantic painter one night in 1859 near Delacroix’s studio on the rue de Furstenberg. Awestruck, Redon followed him for blocks—stalked would be a better word—and even eavesdropped on him at a fancy-dress ball where the still-prepossessing artist flirted with much younger society ladies. (The man represented two decades earlier in the great Self-Portrait in a Green Vest of 1837 bears an uncanny resemblance to Johnny Depp.) Redon esteemed Delacroix’s invention, and especially his diablerie, evident in the seventeen lithographs he made for an edition of Goethe’s Faust (1826–27). Plate one of the series, Mephistopheles Aloft, was the probable basis of Redon’s many prints and drawings of smiling devils, including the charcoal titled Mephistopheles (1877). Delacroix’s Faust illustrations, with their awkward anatomies, grimaces, and general Gothicism, are unexpected highlights of the current survey.

In 1864, Henri Fantin-Latour painted Homage to Delacroix in memory of the recently deceased artist. Ten moderns are assembled: among them, Fantin-Latour himself in white; Whistler in the foreground with dark, tousled hair, à la Delacroix; Manet standing at ease, flanking a framed portrait of Delacroix; and the poet Baudelaire seated in the lower right corner, suit cleaned for the occasion, but hair greasy as usual. The picture has launched a thousand readings, but nobody has stated the obvious: that the guests attending the wake seem like Lilliputians compared to the deceased colossus. He casts his gaze above them all; his brow, the seat of a much-vaunted imagination, belongs to the head that matters most.

Fantin-Latour, who reinvented the genre of the fruit-and-flower still life and then bequeathed it to Cézanne, was inspired by a pair of paintings made by Delacroix in 1848–49. Basket of Flowers and Basket of Flowers and Fruit are veritable cornucopias. The second one portrays impossibly bountiful rosebushes framing a basket with peaches, apples, pears, plums, grapes, and lots more. But the formal placement of the basket on a stone plinth, the crevice of dark blue sky above, and the overall paint density and opacity lend a sober, even funereal cast to this apparent celebration of abundance. In the aftermath of the popular uprising of June 1848, the artist of 28th of July: Liberty Leading the People (1830, not in the exhibition) may have despaired at the bitter class divisions exposed by the bloody end to the insurrection. Perhaps he even reflected upon the Shakespearean antithesis from Hamlet (act I, scene 2): “With an auspicious and a dropping eye, / With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage . . .” In fact, Delacroix, who by then had seen at least two performances of Hamlet—one in English—illustrated that very scene in the first plate of his thirteen 1843 lithographs based on the play (not in the exhibition, although two paintings of Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard are included). Fantin-Latour also illustrated Shakespeare in several lithographs. In addition, his 1864 painting and lithographs illustrating Wagner’s Tannhäuser may be derived from Delacroix’s Hamlet series.

During the last decades of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century, the cult of Delacroix seemed to gain in intensity. Cézanne painted a loopy, allegorical Apotheosis of Delacroix (1890–94), and van Gogh an equally strange, compressed Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889. Paul Gauguin’s breakthrough picture, Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, was influenced by Delacroix’s late mural Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1854; not in the exhibition, though two preparatory drawings and a vivid oil sketch are), painted for the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. As compelling as Gauguin’s canvas is (it represents an assembly of Breton women having a religious vision), it can’t compete with the earlier work. I saw Delacroix’s mural for the first time during a monthlong trip to Paris in 1974, and Saint-Sulpice became my temporary living room. I sat for hours in the chapel beside the painting, reading, dreaming, and, for entertainment, looking up at Delacroix’s two muscular figures struggling with each other beneath a verdant canopy of oaks. The whole scene is replete with vivid simultaneous contrasts: the complementary colors blue and orange, violet and yellow, red and green. I had no television in my small room off the Place de la Contrescarpe, but with a picture like that nearby, who needed it?

In 1899, the Divisionist painter and Seurat follower Paul Signac, discussed the influence of Delacroix in a little book titled From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. He wrote: “The Neo-impressionist’s technique aims . . . at obtaining a maximum of color and light. Is this aim not clearly outlined by the beautiful cry of Eugène Delacroix: ‘The enemy of all painting is grey!’”2 Later in the book, Signac again quoted Delacroix: “My palette, brilliant with the contrast of colors. . . . General rule: more opposition, more brilliance.”3 Signac’s appreciation was shared by the next generation of French modernists. Henri Matisse’s Moroccan pictures, made in the course of two trips, in 1912 and 1913, were inspired by Delacroix’s North African works, and established a framework of luxe, calme et volupté that continued in Nice in the 1920s and, really, for the rest of his career. Even the cutouts, created in Matisse’s last decade, may be a Romantic legacy. From Delacroix, Matisse learned that color, pattern, movement, and decoration are what matter in artworks, not their ostensible subject. Clement Greenberg, no less, agreed. In 1944 he rhapsodized about Delacroix’s genius in his review of a show of the artist’s work at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York, and three years later proclaimed the late murals of Delacroix, including Jacob Wrestling and Apollo Victorious Over the Serpent Python (1850), “the greatest painting of the 19th Century.”4


BUT THE ASCRIPTION of modernity to Delacroix, based on the evidence in the current exhibition, should perhaps be reconsidered. Though he did not have traditional training in Rome, he nevertheless studied and perfected his craft—drawing, composition, and color—as assiduously as any academic master. (Proof may be seen at a smaller show at the Met, “Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix,” on view through November 12.) And though he didn’t develop the standard repertoire of Greco-Roman subjects considered the sine qua non of high-minded French history painting, he cultivated equally grand alternatives: Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Byron. Delacroix was an informal student of the radical and independent Théodore Géricault, even posing for one of the figures in the Raft of the Medusa. But he formally studied in the Paris atelier of the arch-classicist and Royalist Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, frequently adopting motifs from that artist’s work into his own compositions. Delacroix’s 28th of July: Liberty Leading the People is based in part on a bit of Royalist propaganda painted by Guérin about a decade before.

From the beginning to the end of his career, Delacroix created religious works. Christ in the Garden of Olives (The Agony in the Garden), 1824–26, was a commission for the Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris and shown at the Salon of 1827–28. It’s a large, baroque machine, constructed of a pair of intersecting diagonals, apparently inspired by Annibale Carracci and Sebastiano Ricci. It’s notable only for two things: Christ’s vivid orange robe, and the smartly rendered left hand in the center of the picture. That hand is probably the artist’s own, held up while he painted it with his right. Near the end of his career, Delacroix created a series of conventially pietistic pictures inspired by Peter Paul Rubens, including Christ at the Column (1849), Pietà (1850), and several versions of Christ on the Cross. But they do have one feature—besides their colorism—that sets them apart from other salon pictures of the time, and that brings us back to the question of modern art and modernity: their emphasis on the isolated individual.

Throughout his career, Delacroix focused his attention on the plight of individuals beset by powerful, even overwhelming forces: Christ, St. Sebastian, Hamlet, Faust, Don Juan, Jacob, Michelangelo, Sardanapalus, and, in rare examples of women, Cleopatra, Medea, Liberty, and Greece (the last two allegorical, of course). These may all be considered Romantic heroes, but not in the usual sense of the term: dreamers who stand outside of history. Instead, they are treated as actual people who risked their psychic as well as physical integrity in the pursuit of ends higher than their own well-being. Hamlet courted self-destruction and alienation from his community to achieve political justice: “The time is out of joint, O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (act I, scene 5). The aged Michelangelo, in Delacroix’s compact picture, was a melancholic genius, paralyzed by the scale of his own earlier achievement. Medea murdered her children to avenge Jason’s betrayal, but in so doing sacrificed her reason. The Greek people seeking freedom, personified by a beautiful young woman, were killed by the ruthless Ottoman Turks, according to Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826). And Liberty risks her life and dignity (her dress has fallen off her shoulders) to unite a cross-class constituency to overthrow a corrupt Bourbon regime.

Delacroix was himself the heroic, isolated figure he depicted, despite the popularity and success he achieved. He lived and worked at a historical moment when artists became independent commodity producers almost wholly subject to speculation, self-promotion, innovation, and a fickle market. The stock subjects and styles that had sustained careers for generations were no longer in demand by the broad new audiences at the annual salon exhibitions, and patronage from church, state, and nobility had markedly declined. In this modern context, imagination and novelty were prized above all else, and the most successful artists were those who either responded to public taste (risking vulgarity or cliché) or took immense risks in order to achieve striking effects. Delacroix generally opted for the second route, and the danger to his life and health was real. His early diary entries, for example, are filled with alternate expressions of doubt, arrogance, paralysis, and hypomania. Whereas conventional historic, mythic, and religious subjects—the Crucifixion of Christ, the Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, the Battle of Alexander at Issus, the Rape of Persephone—allowed libidinal desire to be safely sublimated through approved iconographic traditions and academic formulas, the new circumstances of art, which valued innovation above all and provided few reliable patrons, meant that every new artwork was a leap into the unknown, requiring considerable emotional as well as financial investment. Thus, in Delacroix, we find images of tormented artists such as Dante, Michelangelo, Paganini, and Chopin. Thus, too, are the numerous, freely painted and even experimental images of abductions, rapes, hunts, seraglios, murders, and the rest. The best example of these are such works as Women of Algiers (again), Combat of the Giaour and Hassan (1835), Lion Hunt (1855–56), and Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable (1860).

Delacroix wasn’t celebrated by the modernists, from Redon to Picasso, and from Baudelaire to Greenberg, just because he seemed to eschew subject in favor of form, but because he accepted the new circumstances of art-making under the aegis of a market-driven cultural and economic order. He continued to paint many of the same subjects that more traditional artists had, but from a new perspective: that of the isolated artist forced to deploy the complex resources of his own mind and imagination in order to maintain a semblance of autonomy amid a succession of repressive cultural and political regimes.