Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.
A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.
Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.
Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.
The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.
Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.
Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.
Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.
Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.
A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.
The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.
What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.
Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.
What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.
Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.
The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.
Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0
Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8
© 2018 Alexander Adams