Like Socrates and Cher, the name of Delacroix says it all. Here is the hot lunch of 19th century French art among so many dishes served cold — exoticism and eroticism, à la français. We can all form some image of the piratically handsome Romantic swashbuckler. We can also picture something of his harems, lions, and malfunctioning blouses rendered in his colours of blood and bone. Or, at the very least, we know someone who can.
And just so, the major survey of Delacroix’s work, which opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is simply titled Delacroix — no subtitle, s’il vous plaît. The Met’s gift shop even sells a black shirt with his name typed out in white. The latest from the House of Delacroix.
Despite lasting fame, something the artist himself obsessively cultivated from youth, Brand Delacroix has not necessarily served the art of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). For one, we now almost always encounter his work in reproduction. Those outsized paintings he brashly submitted to the Salons, swirling 14-foot canvases dense with narrative, almost invariably render down to murky thumb-sized illustrations of red wine and pan juice.
Second, it does not help that the historical dramas and current events that so animated his subject matter have become literary and historical footnotes: ‘The Massacre at Chios’ (1824); ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ (1828); or how about that Ottoman siege of the Greek city of Missolonghi? Any Philhellenes in the house? The passion has long dissipated out of these forgotten concerns.
So Brand Delacroix has been reduced not just to illustration, but to an illustration of an illustration. Beyond mere works of art, his thumbnails mainly serve to illustrate the history of art. It took a generation for France’s revolution in painting to match its revolution in politics. With his bloody scenes painted in a brushy manner, Delacroix jolted the lingering reserve of painting’s ancien régime and opened the floodgates to a more expressive modern style. In Delacroix, Cézanne would say, ‘you can find us all.’
With Romantic flourish, Delacroix went up against the entrenched old guards of French Classicism. In particular, that meant the school around Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, his elder by some 30 years. In his catty Journals, best translated by Walter Pach in his edition of 1937, Delacroix called the splendidly chilly painter ‘pitiful,’ ‘warped,’ and ‘ridiculous,’ and denounced his 1855 retrospective as ‘the complete expression of an incomplete intelligence.’
In Delacroix’s impious brush we find the incomplete expression of a complete intelligence. Despite, or perhaps because of, his celebrity status, a full consideration of the painter has been a long time coming. The last major Delacroix retrospective took place in 1963. There has never been a major survey of Delacroix in North America until now. Whether his art has been as enduring as his revolution is now taken up at the Metropolitan, in a truncated version of the survey that opened at the Louvre last spring, here organized by the Met’s Asher Miller in collaboration with Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre of the Louvre.
And the verdict? As a critic who generally sides with art’s more Classical temperaments, I simply say, go see Delacroix in the flesh. Reserve melts away when you encounter these 150 works on loan from some 60 collections in person — even without his greatest Salon paintings traveling Stateside. Some of his best-known works, the Metropolitan says by way of explaining their absence, are ‘too large or fragile to travel; part of the fabric of the Louvre itself, they require a visit to Paris.’
Just consider ‘Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,’ an early painting of 1826, and one of the first in the Met’s chronological survey. A female figure stands with outstretched arms atop of the rubble of a city. An allegory, yes, but such drama! A wind blows open the robe of this virginal figure, exposing her alabaster skin. A triumphant Egyptian soldier stands behind her in profile against a blackened sky. The arm of a corpse emerges from the crumbled blocks beneath her feet. Drops of blood run over a stone next to her red slipper.
It’s the blood that gets you. There’s something a little wrong about it, if you consider it within the fictional space of the scene. Rather, the blood looks freshly dribbled right on the surface of the canvas. Similarly, the corpse’s hand seems to reach out from the picture plane with a paint-brush grip, almost as if it’s dabbing the red paint itself. And on the other side, the name of Delacroix has been seemingly etched into a stone.
At his best, such frontal pathos is what Delacroix pulls right to the surfaces of his canvases. Notice the curled paw reaching out to swipe us in ‘Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother’ (1830). Or look at the baby’s tear in the achingly awful ‘Medea About to Kill Her Children’ (1838), As opposed to Ingres’s Classical vitrines, with his figures seemingly preserved in liquid nitrogen, these are objects in our own space, by a painter who proclaims himself engaged in the drama depicted herein. And in fact, Delacroix was deeply engaged in the politics of what he painted. He created ‘Missolonghi’ as a benefit for the Greeks besieged by the Ottoman Turks, and a tribute to his literary hero Byron, who died at Missolonghi in 1824. Far from some Oriental fantasy, ‘Missolonghi’ publicises the struggle of an oppressed people fighting an Islamic state.
Julius Meier-Graefe, the definitive turn-of-the-century chronicler of modern art, called Delacroix the ‘last great painter who was a man of profound culture.’ Delacroix was far more serious than his Romantic flamboyance and might suggest. His many studies and preparatory drawings, spread across this exhibition and a concurrent Met survey of his works on paper, speak to his dedication to image-making and his facility as a draftsman. Delacroix was no revolutionary. He was a revivalist, enlivening French art with the forgotten history of painterly expression that ran through Rubens and Rembrandt and the Venetian school of Titian, Tintoretto, and especially Veronese.
Much like the Paris of the early 19th century, today’s art could learn from Delacroix’s red-bloodedness and functioning spleen. More than just a feeling, his expressive brush gave his art a meaning.
James Panero is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. Delacroix is at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City until January 6, 2019.