Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

This summer’s exhibition of art by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at the Louvre drew record-breaking attendance. The display attracted 540,000 visitors. In the last few years Delacroix’s art has undergone a thorough reappraisal in a series of exhibitions, monographs and specialist studies. That reappraisal continues as the Paris exhibition travels to New York. One of the leading centres for Delacroix studies is the Metropolitan Museum – the museum has the best collections of Delacroix’s art outside of France – so it is only fitting that the museum hosts the second stage of the exhibition of Delacroix’s art. Many of the exhibited works have travelled to New York and are complemented by unique works.

Delacroix (17 September 2018-6 January 2019, Metropolitan Museum, New York) presents oil paintings, sketches, drawings, pastels and prints by the artist. (This review is from the catalogue.) The authors of the catalogue text deftly recount the artist’s achievements and outline his career. Delacroix’s relationship with the administrators, critics and public of the annual Salon was – like that of most other French artists of the era – important and subject to variation. A series of early successes catapulted Delacroix to stardom and official patronage, yet he was never assured of positive responses to his competitions and the Salon submissions. He remained a divisive artist to the end and never became rich.

Delacroix became known for his radical reimagining of the rules of composition and content, by removing obvious protagonists, heroic figures and decentring of compositions, most especially noted upon by critics of Massacres in Chios (1824). His handling was also considered shockingly loose. He was accused of using brooms to apply paint and egregious quantities of impasto. His pursuit of sensuous colour combinations was exemplified by Women of Algiers.

Although Delacroix largest and most renowned paintings are unable to travel, they are reproduced and discussed in the catalogue. Luckily, some of the minor pictures will be able to shine. Two of those are Still-life with Lobsters (1826-7), with its rich range of colours and earthiness set against a vivid landscape, shows the influence of English landscapists. Female Academy Figure (Mlle Rose) (c. 1820-3) is a nude study which shows Delacroix using broken-colour brushwork; close observation led the painter to vary colour of different parts of the anatomy in an intense manner that prefigured Naturalism. It also shows Delacroix delight in paint and painting led him to neglect scrupulous drawing. Orphan Girl in the Cemetery (1824) is a study for one of the figures in Massacres at Chios. It is the most delicate, careful and life-like of his oil studies and is fresh and captivating. In terms of quality, Orphan Girl matches anything Delacroix ever painted.

Delacroix’s watercolours from his travels in North Africa are much celebrated. We see men and women in their typical garb – with the artist attracted to the most traditional and ornate costumes. Views of landscapes, buildings and doorways would be used in later paintings, providing settings for Orientalist paintings. The apparent ancient demeanour and physiognomies inspired Delacroix to make modern battle pictures that evoke the antique. The hunting scenes allowed Delacroix to produce original variants of Rubens’s pictures, which he admired. Rubens was Delacroix’s hero, both in his subjects and treatment of colour and brushwork, something that he mentioned often in his journals. Direct copies of Rubens and references to him in Delacroix’s original pictures abound.

The young artist was caught up in the wave of French lithography that flourished in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. At this time lithography was a mass media and was used in the graphic arts to portray the suffering and heroism of Napoleon’s army and the plight of veterans. The included lithograph illustrations are well chosen and display Delacroix’s gift for the pithy summary and attraction to the human drama. Using sgraffito  to scratch a layer of wax crayon on the lithographic stone, Delacroix created a sfumato rendering of figures in nocturnal settings. A particularly good example of that is blacksmith (1833). The visible light source is the glowing metal; the low position adds excitement and theatricality through its unusualness.

The authors describe very well Delacroix’s innovative approach to colour technique.

Flochetage entailed a departure from the classical notion of local color, which is predicated on the essence of a thing. The principle assumes that every object possesses a natural color that can be isolated by precisely drawing the model. Black is then added to that color to produce shadows, in a subtle chiaroscuro. Delacroix realized that the addition of black only muddied the color because the shadows themselves are colored, resulting, as they do, from reflections. […] in Women of Algiers, Delacroix experimented intuitively and for the first time with the law of simultaneous contrast and the optical mixture of complementary colors. […] this manner of paint application confers on the viewer an active role, since the mixing of colors occurs in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. A more intense green is achieved, for instance, when a painter, instead of mixing a yellow with a blue and a dab of yellow on the canvas, following a method Delacroix would call flochetage.

This insight came from the artist’s time in North Africa, experiencing the strong light and bright colours there. His preference for Venetian colour over Florentine line and for developing designs on the canvas was definitely aligned to Romantic ideals rather than Neo-classical systematic preparation through extensive sketches, studies and set compositions.

The exhibition pays attention to the religious, mythological and theatrical paintings of Delacroix’s middle years, when he produced fewer iconic pictures. The artist’s passion for theatrical drama is reflected in his many illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. The painter fretted about the impermanence of the pigments he had used. Tempted by bright strong colours developed using new chemical technology, Delacroix had succumbed to the will-o’-the-wisp of fugitive organic colours, leaving behind the proven endurance of time-tested mineral pigments. While the drive of his early years had been to establish his fame through Salon acclaim, his later years were devoted to making decorative and religious murals, with posterity his main concern. One overlooked aspect which this exhibition gives its due is the accomplishment and variety of the artist’s late landscapes and seascapes. The works are rarely reproduced so they feel fresh and exciting.

Much of Delacroix’s oil painting has suffered from grave cracking and fading (consider the faded blue robes of Dante in The Barque of Dante (1822)); the illustrations (crisp and large) show us some of the diminished glory of Delacroix’s colour. Excellent design provides fine juxtapositions of pictures, allowing easy comparison. Thorough notes, index and bibliography make this volume a useful study aid. In addition to the main body of the text, the catalogue includes original and intelligent essays on the influence upon Delacroix of Guérin and Gros (though sadly not of Géricault), Delacroix as a writer, the 1855 retrospective of his paintings and Courbet’s reaction to him. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are touchstones for anyone interested in Romantic art and the achievements of Delacroix.

 

Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, et al., Delacroix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 328pp, 288 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 588 396518

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