“Oh! Young artist, you want a subject. Everything is a subject; the subject is yourself.” So remarked the French artist Eugène Delacroix in 1854. Nine years later he was dead. Among the mourners at his funeral were three young men all struggling to make their creative mark on the world – Henri Fantin-Latour, Edouard Manet and Charles Baudelaire. All took inspiration from the example of the dead man when in life. Arguably Delacroix belonged more to their generation than his own. Although famous in his lifetime, he was as derided as he was fêted, especially by the Establishment who had little truck with his choice of subject matters, or the perceived vulgarity of their execution. Passionate, headstrong and individualistic, Delacroix found himself at the vanguard of the Romantic Movement and inadvertently bridging the grand traditions of European painting and the new. In personality and method he paved the way for the Moderns – the Impressionists, Fauvists, Pointillists, et al.
Astonishingly for an artist of such stature and influence, this is the first major exhibition of his work in Britain for more than fifty years. A clue to why this is lies in this exhibition’s title – “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art”. The emphasis on Nineteenth century French art so often falls after the Salon des Refusés of 1863 (the year of Delacroix’s death) which galvanised the young iconoclasts who were to develop into the new Avant Garde, that the period between the crumbling of Neo-classicism and the birth of Modernism is often glossed over. Arguably, in trying to restore Delacroix’s position to the pantheon of great painters, the exhibition succeeds more in presenting him as a facilitator. This is abetted by the fact that many of Delacroix’s most famous works are missing and that what is on show sometimes pales next to masterpieces by Cézanne, Renoir and Van Gogh. There is no “Liberty Leading the People” or “Massacre at Chios” and even the shocking and beautiful “The Death of Sardanapalus” is a reduced replica painted twenty years after the original.
If the exhibition doesn’t succeed in making a comprehensive case for Delacroix due to saying in words rather than showing through pictures, then it certainly whets the appetite and makes a starting point for a fuller appreciation. The wonderful self-portrait from the Louvre is on show and illustrates how much of a fan Delacroix was of Byron. Showing himself with dark tumbling locks, a determined tilt of the head and an unearthly pallor, he resembles one of the poet’s doomed heroes.
Interestingly for someone so Gallic in his looks and temperament, Delacroix was an Anglophile. He was dismissive of French painting of the time but admired the colour and handling of the English School. The full length portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter of 1826 sprang from a visit to the studios of Thomas Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington the previous year. In it the future baron is presented in the subdued but elegant dress of an English gentleman. Mirroring this is John Singer Sargent’s looming portrait of Lord Ribblesdale from 1902. Although the latter’s aristocratic aloofness is in contrast to Schwiter’s gentle gaze, in both portraits are the same elongation of form and elaboration of dress.
The subdued qualities of these two paintings both in subject and style are in marked contrast to much of Delacroix’s oeuvre. He was often drawn to violent and kinetic themes where the whirling stabs of brushwork and the dazzling intensity of his palette make it feel as though the figures portrayed are trying to rip themselves free from the canvas. Such is the effect in the narratives of “Wieslingen captured by Goetz’s Men”, “Combat of the Giaour and Hassan” and the magnificent “Lion Hunt”. In all of these can be seen the inspirational flourish of Peter Paul Rubens, an acknowledged influence – none more so than the last which drew freely from a Rubens painting of the same name. Delacroix’s affinity for the big feline was apt; it was noted by Baudelaire who described him as “a tiger intent upon his prey” in his eagerness to capture a creative idea.
Delacroix’s taste for the exotic and a desire to paint with a light more intense than that which shone from the skies over Paris led him on a trip to Morocco in 1832. He was to stay for six months. The journey had a lasting impact both in terms of subject matter and colouration. Although he made many hundreds of sketches and paintings whilst there, many of the most original ones were done years later when memory combined with imagination. “Giaour and Hassan” and “Lion Hunt” both sprang from this period, as well as the striking “Convulsionists of Tangier” depicting the violent annual mourning of a Sufi sect whom Delacroix had observed from an attic hideout.
Delacroix also drew from the Orient places which reflected domesticity and stillness. “Women of Angiers in their Apartment”, painted nearly twenty years later, is one of the most beautiful examples in atmosphere and contemplativeness. It beguiled everyone from Picasso to Van Gogh, who was so struck by the half tones that he moved away from the vibrancy of his Arles pictures to the subtler palette seen in the wonderfully still “Olive Trees.”
A child of the Revolution, Delacroix was not a religious man but the truth contained in the best religious paintings meant that the genre held a special significance for him. In “The Lamentation” which shows Jesus’s followers in mourning round him, Delacroix reaches his personal apotheosis in a religious subject. Visually it is very dark and appears deceptively simple. But it has great power. Henry James called it “a work of really inexpressible beauty… the only modern religious picture I have seen that seemed to be painted in good faith.” In its simplicity of expression it hearkens back to the stark purity of El Greco, and looks forwards to the Symbolist paintings of Gaugin.
It is perhaps no coincidence that “The Lamentation”, started in 1847, was painted at the same time that Delacroix made a foray into floral still lifes. Like the religious painting the five big canvases he did were monumental and contained a similar sensibility, mixing the intensity of life with fluttering mortality. Almost single handedly he was to revive a moribund genre which saw artists such as Cézanne, Courbet, and later, Gaugin and Van Gogh, paint floral compositions not as decorative pieces or momento mori, but as means of self expression.
Troubled by ill health and the tuberculosis which was to claim his life, Delacroix worked until the end, often swathed to the nose to combat the cold of the studio. He was uncompromising in his pursuit of the essence of painting. If he was not always recognised for his worth by the public or the critics, then he was, at least, by his peers. He was a painter’s painter. Van Gogh and Gaugin followed him south as far as the Mediterranean to capture the brilliance of the light and Matisse, eight decades later, to Morocco itself. Cézanne sums it up; “… no-one under the sky had more charm and pathos combined… or more vibration of colour. We all paint in his language.”
Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at National Gallery until 22nd May 2016. For more information and to book tickets visit the website.