The Manhattan Museum Scene
Delighting in Delacroix
By Margot Clark-Junkins
Eugène Delacroix. The very name is synonymous with Art History 101’s Romantic period and those narrative-driven paintings depicting important events we struggle to remember from literature and history. It is likely that you would recognize Delacroix’s most famous work, <Liberty Leading the People,> which features a bare-breasted Frenchwoman on the battlefield, scrambling over a barricade while holding the French flag high in one hand and a bayonet in the other; but how much did you know about the artist?
Works of art by the renowned French painter (1798-1863) have been brought together by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in conjunction with the Musée du Louvre in an exhibition called, appropriately, “Delacroix.” Like <Liberty>, you must lift your standard (or coffee cup) into the air and lead your people (or your kids) across the battlefield (in your case, the soccer field), and get yourself to the exhibit at the Met. Never before has there been a retrospective of Delacroix in our country. Although <Liberty> herself could not make the journey (too large a painting, and too beloved), 17 other works have been shipped here from the Louvre; in all, 60 museums and private collections contributed to the show.
Delacroix was trained by the Neoclassical painter Pierre Narcisse Guérin. He eventually rejected the precise style so typical of the French Enlightenment, preferring more romantic themes and a swifter, less constrained manner of applying brushstrokes and colors. He achieved great fame in his lifetime, producing upwards of 700 paintings. He inspired countless artists, including Cézanne who said, “You can find us all in Delacroix.” In 1885, van Gogh wrote, “What I find so fine about Delacroix is precisely that he reveals the liveliness of things, and the expression and the movement, that he is utterly beyond the paint.”
The exhibit’s many drawings and sketches in a variety of media do much to further our understanding of the artist’s creative process. You can actually observe the development of his ideas through the multiple versions rendered in pencil, pen and ink, then watercolor, and finally oil paint. Many of these drawings did not come to light until after his death.
We also benefit from reading his notebooks. We learn that he was fascinated with narratives from literary works by Lord Byron, Goethe’s Faust, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Sir Walter Scott. Delacroix was quite taken with the idea of the past living amid the present. He was greatly inspired by his surroundings during time spent in Morocco and Algeria, circa 1832. “Beauty runs in the streets,” he wrote.
The exhibit, which is chronological, fills 12 galleries and includes 150 paintings, drawings, lithographs, aquatints, and manuscripts. The rooms are richly painted in deep colors like Prussian blue and aubergine, evoking a warm, moody atmosphere. Apparently, Delacroix was a man of strong feelings, driven by ambition. Charles Baudelaire wrote that, “Delacroix was a volcanic crater, artistically concealed beneath a bouquet of flowers.”
It seems he was able to shift quite easily between monumental religious subjects, watercolor sketches of street scenes, Faustian-themed prints and oil portraits. His portraits and self-portraits are noteworthy for their depth of personality. In the years leading up to his death, he demonstrated a growing interest in the natural world. He studied animals in the menagerie and flowers in the <Jardins des Plantes>. The animals of Delacroix— horses and tigers in particular — are a delight to behold, so elegant, so regal, so effortlessly rendered. His late landscapes are remarkably impressionistic, reflecting the artist’s ongoing evolution late into his career.
The exhibit runs through January 6. If you have stamina equaling that of Delacroix himself, continue on to “Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix,” which is comprised of 130 drawings gifted to the museum by collector Karen B. Cohn (through November 12).
Eugène Delacroix, <Self-Portrait with Green Vest, ca. 1837. Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN–Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michel Urtado
Eugène Delacroix, <Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother,> 1830. Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Franck Raux