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A Clearer Vision of Delacroix, The Man & His Art

Eugène Delacroix’s “Massacres at Chios,” 1824, 1824 Salon. Oil on canvas. 419 × 354 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris
(© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle/ Adrien)

As a boy growing up in Paris, Eugène Delacroix spent many afternoons in the Louvre. There, he admired the works of Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, and, incredibly, at the tender age of eighteen and a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, was given permission to set up a ladder and scaffolding in order to directly copy masterpieces like Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana,” 1562-63, according to Sébastien Allard, the Louvre’s head of 19th-century French painting and Neo-Classicism.

Even as a teenager, he took advantage of the art at the Louvre to develop an eclectic taste, which often differed from that of the reigning authority of the day — the Académie des Beaux-Arts — which tended to privilege more academic art. As the academy extolled the virtues of Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, and Charles Le Brun, Delacroix fell in love with the colors, boldness, and energy of Titian, Rubens, and Veronese. More than 30 years later, after Delacroix had become a household name — and just after the French Revolution of 1848 — the newly elected president Napoléon III tapped him to paint the ceiling of the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon, a project that took him nearly two years. His most famous painting, “Liberty Leading the People,” 1830, a patriotic post-revolution artwork that depicts Marianne, the Goddess of Liberty, with one breast hanging out and the tri-color French flag in her hand, leading the people forward as a commemoration of the July Revolution of 1830, was finally displayed in the museum too, after having been called “too inflammatory.”

The Louvre, therefore, largely provided the bookends of Delacroix’s artistic life. It seems only right then that the Louvre would also be the museum putting on a massive, 180-artwork retrospective for the artist, on view March 29 to July 23.

The first major Delacroix retrospective since the 1963 exhibition, also at the Louvre, which marked the centenary of his death, the upcoming show will display works from when he was as young as 22 and was first being shown at the Paris Salon to his final, quasi-religious compositions that he created in his early-60s just before his death. The exhibition is in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which makes it the first-ever major Delacroix retrospective to take place in North America. France will lend the Louvre’s “Women of Algiers,” 1834, and “Self-portrait with Green Vest,” 1837, as well as the Musée d’Orsay’s “The Tiger Hunt,” 1854, while the Met will lend the newly restored “Basket of Flowers,” 1848-49, and “The Abduction of Rebecca,” 1846. Museums across France — from Lille to Bordeaux to Nancy to Montpellier — will also lend works to both exhibitions. The shows will differ slightly, however, as the Moreau-Nélaton Collection in the Louvre and Wrightsman Collection in the Met, both of which include works by Delacroix, were donated with specific conditions that forbid lending. Curated by Allard as well as Côme Fabre, the former paintings curator at the Musée d’Orsay and now the curatorial specialist for 19th-century French paintings at the Louvre, the show, simply called “Delacroix,” aims to find the nuance in a man and career, both of which are too often incorrectly viewed as consistent and staid.

“The attempts to understand [his career] are often drowned in the mass of works and information,” Fabre said. “Delacroix is often understood in a binary way, in perpetual cleavage — romantic versus classic.” In order to tap into the complexity and the subtly shifting nature of his art, Allard and Fabre dove into Delacroix’s personal archives, looking to find out what he was reading and what he was looking at — what was informing him — as he painted.

“We started from his writings, his paintings and the way he made them public, in order to understand his desires and his strategy to satisfy them,” Fabre said, “and then how he redefined his desires and reoriented his creation when the previous objectives were achieved.” Delacroix’s style fluctuated throughout his lifetime. His earliest paintings, like “Dante and Virgil in Hell,” 1822, mixed religion and literature, while later, when he was in his late-20s and early-30s, he took mostly from historical events, like the Greek War of Independence, for instance, which anchors “The Massacre at Chios,” 1824, and “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” 1826.

Near the end of his life, he went back to painting more religious works but this time with a more secular perspective with which he contended with religious themes not in awe-struck earnest so much as with a curiosity toward the kinds of formal compositions religious depictions allowed. A hero of modernity and secularity, Delacroix treated his later works with a Romantic view of the divine — that is an introspective spirituality in which the depicted characters were not performing a religious scene so much as being influenced in their actions by the theological landscape. As Baudelaire wrote in “Eugène Delacroix, His Life and Work,” “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.”

Born in Paris in 1798 to Charles-François Delacroix, a foreign affairs minister, and Victoire Oeben, controversy quickly surrounded the Delacroixs. Even today, rumors about Eugène’s true background persist, with the possibility that Maurice de Talleyrand, a French bishop and politician, was his real father — a belief that’s strengthened both by his physical resemblance to Talleyrand and by the fact that, later in life, he received lucrative patronage deals from the French government even as his art broke from the Academy’s style.

Both Victoire and Charles were deeply supportive parents, however, and were happy enough when, at seventeen, their son switched from classical studies, music, and theater to focus on art. He began by taking lessons from the well-known academic painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, whereupon, the following year, he matriculated at the École des Beaux-Arts, which, situated a few steps from the Louvre, lent itself well to his many visits.

From beginning to end, one of the most important influences on Delacroix’s art was literature. With particular interest in Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and William Shakespeare, he used literature both as a source for new subjects as well as inspiration for mixing painterly genres and emotional registers — funny and sad, gothic and fantastic. Delacroix was careful, however, to use these authors for the sentiments they conveyed rather than for the actual content of their stories. “He immersed himself in the text then transcribed a general impression of his reading, slipped into the ellipses of the story,” said Fabre. “For ‘Faust,’ for example, he asked Motte, the publisher, to put the engravings one after the other, separately from the text: thereby promoting the autonomy of the image with respect to the text.”

Thanks to Lord Byron in particular, whose works often turned on the “forces of the sublime,” Delacroix was especially taken with the violence and movement of nature, and he began what is perhaps the most interesting part of his career — works of exoticism and spiritualism that, rather than falling into academic depictions of Roman or Greek art, drew from North Africa, for instance, and frontier-like landscapes. Movement and color became key. Delicate form and clarity were of far less importance, and, in some cases, would have potentially even ruined the energy of many of his artworks.

In “The Murder of the Bishop of Liège,” 1829, which depicts the murder of Louis de Bourbon, the Bishop of Liège, as he is partaking in an orgy thrown by William de la Marck, his captor, Delacroix is careful not to overdepict or unnecessarily clarify any parts of the scene. He wants, instead, to create the feeling that you, as the viewer, are in the room — that you are embroiled in the murder, in the orgy. In doing so, he stakes himself as a clear precursor to the Impressionists. “Less finished than a painting, more finished than a sketch,” wrote the French art historian Barthélémy Jobert, “‘The Murder of the Bishop of Liège’ was left by the painter at that supreme moment when one more stroke of the brush would have ruined everything.”

“Delacroix” at the Louvre will home in on precisely this kind of attention to detail. It will also find the layers and complexities to Delacroix’s artistic history that are often lacking, due largely to the fact that his artwork has been so scattered across the Western world. “The great popular masterpieces were created during the first ten years of his career and are for the most part on display at the Louvre,” said Allard, the co-curator. “We know much less about the remaining 30 years of creation, especially because some paintings are difficult to access — monumental irremovable decorations in churches and official buildings — or [are] scattered in various museums and private collections.” By bringing so many works together from across France and New York this spring, the Louvre will not only create a clearer vision of Delacroix’s vital and influential artwork, but, just as importantly, of the shifting nature of Delacroix the man.

— This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Art+Auction