Color is Eugène Delacroix’s hero. He fights for color. He lives for color. His oil paintings are luxurious orchestrations of feverish reds, velvety blues, dusky purples, astringent oranges, and shimmering greens. In his works on paper, some of the same colors, presented as isolated elements, become refreshingly austere. There is nothing that this giant of nineteenth-century French painting cannot do with color. If his art is uneasy, it’s because his color is never easy. He flirts with chromatic chaos. He yearns for chromatic catharsis. “The very sight of my palette,” he once wrote, “freshly set out with the colors in their contrasts is enough to fire my enthusiasm.” However alien we may find some of his gaudy fantasies and megalomaniacal ambitions, there is no question that he is an artist who knows how to fill our eyes.
What’s demoralizing about the retrospective that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is that Delacroix’s coloristic genius is so hard to find. The sepulchral installation muffles and sometimes even strangles his work. Is this the museum’s idea of what it takes to set a mood worthy of Delacroix’s reputation as the leader of the Romantic movement in France? There is hardly any ambient light in the galleries. Most of the walls are painted a blackish-blue or a brownish-purple. Museumgoers find themselves thrust from one awkwardly spotlit painting to another, as if they were seeing them as part of the Disney World Haunted Mansion ride. Asher Miller, the curator who organized the retrospective, may have worried that if he didn’t give Delacroix’s work a shot of horror-show lighting, the artist, who was sixty-five when he died in Paris in 1863, would seem a figure adrift in early-twenty-first-century Manhattan. Miller and his team have refused to stand back and let him speak for himself. They’ve turned even Delacroix’s subtlest dramas into murky melodramas.
There is no question that a Delacroix retrospective poses challenges. At a time when we are grappling with doubts and diminishments in so many areas of our social, cultural, and political life, museumgoers may find themselves nonplussed by the bulldozer Romanticism of some of his work. Delacroix’s grandest canvases, along with Hector Berlioz’s operatic and symphonic works and Victor Hugo’s plays, novels, and poems, have a sweep and an insistence that can strike us as not so much authoritative as authoritarian. We may prefer our Romantic painters to be philosophical and skeptical and neurotic, like the German Casper David Friedrich, or pastoral and contemplative, like the Englishmen John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
Delacroix, who very much admired Constable’s landscapes, certainly had a quietistic side, which was reflected in the sensitivity with which he painted darkened interiors, shadowy glades, and boats in shimmering water. He was a man of many parts. Even in his own day the public did not always find it easy to pin him down. The art historian Lorenz Eitner once observed that Delacroix’s “was the strangest fate of any artist of his time: he was misunderstood and celebrated; he hated the spirit of his century, and yet represented it more completely than any other painter.”
Delacroix was born with many advantages. If he grew up to be something of a skeptic, it may have been because the comforts and privileges that he had taken for granted when he was a boy were taken away from him when he was a young man. His father, Charles Delacroix, held important government positions. His mother, Victoire Oeben, came from a family that included some of the most celebrated cabinetmakers in eighteenth-century Paris. Eugène, the youngest of their four children, lacked for nothing. There has long been a tradition that Delacroix’s real father was the diplomat and politician Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family, although Barthélémy Jobert, whose biography of the artist has just been published in a revised edition, is skeptical of those claims.*
For Delacroix, whose parents died when he was still young and who saw the family’s finances collapse in the rapidly changing political and economic climate of the early nineteenth century, some deeply ingrained sense of entitlement must have armored him as he navigated the treacherous art world of nineteenth-century Paris. From an early age he knew that he was going to have to support himself. That was no easy matter, even with the advantage that his distinguished family connections probably gave him with some of the officials who at the time controlled most of an artist’s routes to success. During a career that spanned more than forty years, Delacroix explored a phenomenal range of subjects: Old Testament and New Testament stories; scenes from Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe; several centuries of French history; North African life; the political upheavals of his own moment; portraits, landscapes, seascapes, nudes, and studies of animals and flowers.
There is no way to consider Delacroix’s art and life without being plunged almost head-first into the maelstrom of nineteenth-century Paris. While he was no great admirer of Balzac’s novels, Delacroix was shaped by the pressure-cooker cultural atmosphere that Balzac immortalized in Lost Illusions, The Unknown Masterpiece, and other volumes of the Comédie Humaine. Delacroix was himself a writer of considerable powers; his Journal stands with Cellini’s Autobiography and Van Gogh’s letters among the few instances of a visual artist producing pages of prose that have independent literary value. In Delacroix’s Journal the flashing insights into his own art are freely mingled with one of the great accounts of a creative life lived day by day. It’s all there: the friendships with George Sand and Chopin; the countless exhausting evenings at receptions, dinners, and concerts; the excitement of assignations and infatuations; the maddening hustle for commissions; the yearning for country life and the ceaseless pull of the city; and the stalwart housekeeper, Jenny Le Guillou, who became perhaps his closest friend.
As an artist Delacroix was a storyteller, a fabulist. Everything we know about his life can become a stumbling block when we’re looking at his work. We are in danger of literalizing with hard facts what he meant to mythologize with sumptuous color. We shouldn’t make too much of the details of his six-month trip to North Africa as part of an official government delegation in 1832, or his front-row seat as the affair between Sand and Chopin ignited and eventually flamed out, or his friendship with Baudelaire, who was a fervent admirer of his work and wrote an impassioned tribute after his death. When he was painting, Delacroix wanted the story he was telling to take on a life of its own—not a nineteenth-century life but a life that exploded the trappings of his own time and place. In the Journal he spoke of “pictorial licence,” of “an element of improvisation in the execution of a painter,” and of “beginning to develop a rhythm, a powerful spiral momentum.”
For this man who loved to make watercolor studies of the patterns of North African textiles, color was the magic carpet that liberated his subjects, turning fixed facts into open-ended themes and variations. Nowhere is this more true than in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), which is without a doubt the linchpin of the exhibition at the Metropolitan. We are lucky that it is here, since some of Delacroix’s most important works, included in the larger version of the exhibition that was seen at the Louvre—among them Liberty Leading the People and the thirteen-foot-high Death of Sardanapalus—have not made the trip to New York.
Women of Algiers, which fascinated and at times even obsessed both Matisse and Picasso, is one of the great enigmas of early modern art, as weird in its way as Gérard de Nerval’s novella Sylvie. Delacroix’s canvas has nothing to do with the softcore fantasies that finicky Orientalist painters served up in the salons. As scholars have pointed out in recent years, he himself made the distinction with his title, which locates these women “in their apartment”—not “in a harem.” While Jean-Léon Gérôme painted scenes in which women were often quite literally being groomed for sex, Delacroix’s women, with their easy languorous authority, may push us to wonder, as Rilke wondered about Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques a century later, “But tell me, who are they?”
With Women of Algiers, Delacroix’s powers of painterly improvisation confound whatever anthropological or sociological interpretation his contemporaries—or ours, for that matter—might want to impose on the canvas. The drama is fueled by his arresting juxtapositions of throbbing reds and greens. What pushes these chromatic dissonances to dizzying heights is the linear vigor with which Delacroix, like all the great colorists, works his paint.
The four women—three of them are seated while the fourth, a dark-skinned servant, walks away—achieve a casually monumental power. Their poses are relaxed yet inevitable, as if ordinary mobility had been mythically immobilized. Each detail—the turn of an arm or a finger, the articulation of a shoe, a rug, a pillow, a cabinet door—complicates the equation. No artist has squeezed more visual drama from the contrast between dark hair and pale skin. The purpose of a woman in a harem dissolves in the contemplative playfulness of Delacroix’s arabesques. The woman half reclining in the foreground, who regards us with her imponderable dark eyes, is neither victim nor victor. She is more like a messenger, a demigod presiding over the impossible abyss that separates Realism from Romanticism. What it all adds up to cannot be described except as a feast for the eyes. That’s the ideal to which Delacroix has dedicated Women of Algiers.
The openness and ambiguity of Delacroix’s art were recognized by his contemporaries, who saw multiplying possibilities even in an unabashedly political and timely work such as Liberty Leading the People, with its indelible image of a bare-breasted young woman carrying the tricolore. Painted in 1830, immediately after Delacroix witnessed the July Revolution, with street fighting in Paris precipitating the establishment of a new constitutional monarchy, Liberty Leading the People was a few years later described by the critic Théophile Thoré as “both history and allegory. Is this a young woman of the people? Is it the spirit of liberty? It is both; it is, if you will, liberty incarnate in a young woman.”
Alexandre Dumas, who was with Delacroix on the streets of Paris during the three days of the July Revolution, observed the mixed enthusiasms of the artist, who shared his father’s admiration for Napoleon but couldn’t fail to feel the excitement of what seemed at the time to be a popular uprising. However conflicted Delacroix’s sympathies might have been, all that finally mattered to him was a visual ideology—what might be called the politics of color, line, and form. Years later, writing about Delacroix’s The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, Baudelaire found that “its stormy and mournful harmony” pushed the artist to set “subject matter” aside and concentrate on his gift for “melting drama and reverie into a mysterious unity.”
In the debates between the Romantics and the Classicists that defined the battle lines in nineteenth-century French art, there was never any doubt that Delacroix stood at the head of the Romantics. But anybody who lingers with his work or his writings can see that his position was much more complex. He dug deep into his penchant for unbridled emotions in the many lithographs he devoted to Goethe’s Faust. And his lithographs and paintings based on Shakespearean characters, stories, and themes are certainly among his most savory achievements. Shakespeare, who discovered the wonderfully organic shape of his plays amid the competing personalities and destinies of his heroes and heroines, may have emboldened Delacroix as he broke with the rigid structures celebrated by French Classicism. But as much as Delacroix emphasized the importance of instinct and improvisation, he was also preoccupied with the classical values of clarity, closure, and perfection.
When it came to music, which was one of Delacroix’s greatest passions, he never felt that anything could rival Mozart’s lucidity. One day in 1847, Delacroix found himself in a discussion in his studio about the relative virtues of Beethoven and Mozart. A pupil, the painter Grenier de Saint-Martin, told his teacher that he ranked him, along with Beethoven and Shakespeare, among the “unruly students of nature.” Delacroix couldn’t help but appreciate the compliment. There was some discussion as to whether Mozart, “in spite of his divine perfection,” could ever reach the emotional heights they knew from Beethoven. There was a “melancholy” and maybe even a romanticism in Beethoven that some might miss in Mozart. And yet, Delacroix concluded, Mozart’s Don Giovanni “is full of this feeling.” As to how feeling and perfection could finally be joined, that was a question to which Delacroix may have felt that he never really found the answer.
Ever the intellectual adventurer, Delacroix couldn’t ignore the great variety of imaginative modes and manners available to a painter. We know that he revered Rubens, whose supercharged compositions will forever be associated with the pomp and circumstance of court life and ecclesiastical life in seventeenth-century Europe. In the opulent audacities of Rubens’s Maria de’ Medici cycle, Delacroix discovered compositional strategies that would serve him well. From Rubens he learned how to gather his bending and shifting figures in a spiral or helix that twisted and buckled the flat surface of the canvas.
But anyone who has read the Journal knows that he was almost equally absorbed in the study of Poussin, whose compositions represent a more contemplative side of seventeenth-century experience. The use of sharply contrasted areas of relatively solid color in some of Delacroix’s religious compositions—The Lamentation and The Agony in the Garden come to mind—owes a debt to the blocks of color in Poussin’s late religious works. If Rubens taught Delacroix to complicate his color—to create chromatic whirlpools and tornadoes—Poussin showed him how to simplify it.
To accompany the Delacroix retrospective, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a separate exhibition of the artist’s works on paper. “Devoted to Drawing” showcases the collection of more than 130 works that Karen B. Cohen is giving to the museum. Presented with beautiful straightforwardness in a series of three well-lit galleries, the Delacroix drawing show invites museumgoers to engage with the artist’s processes in ways that are well-nigh impossible given the overbearing presentation of the retrospective.
Delacroix’s drawings are very much works-in-progress: provisional, experimental, open-ended. Whether his medium is graphite, crayon, or pen and ink, he’s reaching for the big forms and the big movements. He indicates planar shifts not with crosshatching but with quick bursts (one might almost call them fusillades) of parallel lines. In the drawings you feel his muscular mastery. He’s wrestling images onto the page. When he introduces color, the emotional temperature dramatically shifts. In the watercolors he made during his visit to Morocco in 1832 and in a pastel of a sunset from around 1850, Delacroix demonstrates a modesty and scrupulousness that can leave museumgoers holding their breath.
Delacroix keeps revealing different sides of his personality. Even in Paris, a museum is not necessarily the best place to take the full measure of his achievement. He spent much of his life engaged in elaborate commissions both from the church and the state. Visitors to Paris must plan carefully if they are to have any chance of seeing the immense decorative cycles that he produced in the Palais Bourbon and Palais du Luxembourg in the 1840s. But it is fortunate that of all Delacroix’s efforts to go head to head with the masters of the Renaissance and the Baroque, the greatest remains the most accessible. Anyone can walk into the Church of Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank and linger over his Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. (The Metropolitan retrospective includes a magnificent full-color compositional study for the painting.)
In a description of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Delacroix wrote of “the tests that God sends sometimes to his elect.” This story of a mortal’s struggle with the divine obviously had a very personal significance for Delacroix, who never stopped wrestling with his own immense ambitions. The astonishing result, more than twenty-four feet high, is a paradoxical masterpiece. By setting his ancient subject in a landscape that he knew well—the forest of Sénart at Champrosay, near Paris, where he owned a house—Delacroix manages to telescope time and space. The immense tree that dominates the composition is both naturalistic and totemic. Delacroix makes the biblical conflict feel terrifyingly, triumphantly intimate. This is that rare vision of the Old Testament that could actually hold its own amid the secular forces that were gaining strength all through the nineteenth century.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is one of the triumphs of Delacroix’s later years in which he was beginning to think of narratives as mood poems. In organizing the retrospective, Asher Miller was right to play around some with the chronology of Delacroix’s career; this enabled him to more effectively present Delacroix’s work as a series of themes and variations. But there was no good reason to place two of the greatest contemplative compositions of Delacroix’s later decades near the front of the show, in a grab-bag gallery dedicated to “The Image of the Artist.” They are summing-up visions and they should have come near the end.
One of these is a small painting, Michelangelo in His Studio, in which the artist is enveloped by the ghostlike presence of his own sculpture. Michelangelo, seated with his head resting on one hand, is almost immobilized by the melancholy that Delacroix must have believed always accompanied the act of creation and the yearning for perfection. There is a sense here of the artist as not active but passive, not a creator but a receiver. The tradition of which Michelangelo was a part had begun long before him and would survive long after he was gone. An artist was always in the middle of things, subject to the vagaries of fortune and the whims of fate.
That same tragic sense suffuses Ovid Among the Scythians, which he completed in 1859, only four years before his death (see illustration on page 14). Painted around the same time as Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, it is another work in which Delacroix, perhaps thinking of Poussin, turned history painting into a kind of landscape painting. Ovid Among the Scythians, which takes as its subject the banishment of Ovid from Rome to the shores of the Black Sea by the emperor Augustus, is a study of the artist as outsider. Delacroix had already used the subject for one of his decorations in the Palais Bourbon in 1844, and returning to it fifteen years later he shifted from the heroic to the lyric mode.
The poet, a relatively small, reclining figure dressed in blue and white, is nearly overwhelmed by the easy opulence of the emerald-green landscape, with its gentle hills, curving seashore, distant blue mountains, and cloud-spattered sky. Disposed here and there across the landscape are something like twelve figures. A group of Scythians humbly approaches the great poet, offering to share their meal with him. A boy stands watching, accompanied by a beautiful dog. In the foreground an enormous black mare is being milked by a kneeling man. It is the landscape itself, with its penetrating green punctuated here and there by grace notes of red, blue, yellow, orange, and black, that tells the story. The painting suggests the slow movement in a great sonata or concerto. Delacroix’s visual rhythms are so assured that he can risk stasis. Everything is curving, curling, lilting, turning, cresting, ebbing, flowing. Time nearly stops but never really stops.
In a stirring self-portrait painted around 1837, when he was almost forty, Delacroix represented himself as the Romantic hero, a darkly dramatic figure sure to attract attention in every fashionable drawing room in Paris. Twenty years later he was no longer so sure that the artist shaped his own destiny. He found himself thinking about an artist in exile, whom he envisioned as nearly vanishing in a landscape that Baudelaire described as “a rich and fertile drift of reverie.” The painting itself was now the protagonist. Perhaps that had always been the case. Rarely has an artist been simultaneously as self-confident and as self-effacing as Eugène Delacroix. Those who dismiss his work as Romantic bombast may be unwilling to confront their own Romantic uncertainty. Delacroix’s art remains a gorgeous enigma.