Thursday, April 26, 2018

This Day in Art History (Birth of Eugene Delacroix, French Romantic Rebel)

Apr. 26, 1798— Eugène Delacroix, a French Romantic painter who moved his country in a different artistic direction through works abounding in exotic, extravagant color, was born Charenton (Saint-Maurice), Val de Marne departement, in the Ile de France region near Paris. 

Instability marked the painter’s youth and early manhood. In short order, France experienced Napoleon Bonaparte, at his zenith, in defeat and exile; the overthrow of the revived Bourbon monarchy; and the acquisitive desires of a bourgeoisie unleashed after the French Revolution and a quarter-century of war with the rest of Europe. 

The fortunes of his family mirrored the national unrest. It was widely believed that his father, Charles Delacroix, was infertile, and that his real male parent was Talleyrand, successor to Charles as minister of foreign affairs. With his debt-ridden father dying when Eugene was seven, his mother following nine years later, and Eugene himself suffering from various medical conditions that would plague him for years, it was no wonder that the boy grew up solitary and intense.

Make that solitary, intense and independent. Though excelling in his studies of the classics and drawing at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, he left to pursue painting. A short stint with the influential painter Pierre-Narcisse Guerin likewise left little impression.

Widespread notice—bur hardly the approval of the French artistic establishment—came to him in his twenties with two paintings that caused scandals: The Massacre at Chios (1824), which alluded to the repressive Bourbon restoration, and The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), which depicted a decadent Assyrian king ordering the murder of his servants, concubines and animals. 

Anti-monarchical sentiment also informed what might be Delacroix’s most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830), in which the Goddess of Liberty, triumphantly holding aloft France’s national flag, leads a vanguard of French citizens moving forward, even as soldiers lying dead in the foreground demonstrate the tumult and cost of freedom. 

Before long, an alternative source of non-French, non-classical subject matter began to appeal to Delacroix. Unlike prior French artists, who traveled to Italy for their models, he went in another direction, toward Morocco, where he found an atmosphere that spurred his interest in sensual environments. (He met with less success in convincing women of this region to pose for him, because of traditional Moslem strictures mandating that women be covered.)

A contemporary of Honore de Balzac, the painter gave the novelist through his work an example of how to use color in the short novel La Fille aux yeux d'or (The Girl With the Golden Eyes) that formed the final portion of The History of the Thirteen. Yet, while Balzac acknowledged the debt by dedicating the novella to him, Delacroix did not reciprocate the affection, at times scathingly criticizing him.

“I dislike rational painting,” Delacroix once observed—and, indeed, intense emotion burst beyond the frames of his paintings. It wasn’t only in his sensational, even melodramatic, subject matter (e.g., massacres), but also in the bold brush strokes that anticipated Van Gogh and Gaugain.

Because much of  Delacroix’s work—particularly in the latter part of his career—consisted of public art, a visit to France is still the best way to view much of his work. But New Yorkers will soon get to experience firsthand a large portion of it, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an exhibit of 180 of his works that had been first on display at the Musee du Louvre. The exhibit will run at the Met from September 17, 2018 to January 6, 2019. 

There, we should understand anew what Delacroix meant by “The great artist roams his own domain, and there he offers you a feast to his own taste.”

(The image accompanying this post is Delacroix's self-portrait, painted in 1837.)

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