Eugène Delacroix Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Eugène Delacroix 1798-1863

(Born Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix) French painter and writer.

Eugène Delacroix is considered among the greatest and most influential French painters. Many scholars classify him as the greatest painter of the French Romantic movement, and note that his use of color was instrumental in the development of both impressionist and post-impressionist movements. His drew inspiration from a variety of other disciplines, including history, music, and literature, but a visit to Morocco in 1832 proved to be a defining moment in his development as an artist. The exotic locale entranced Delacroix and served as source material for his work for the rest of his life. Delacroix's fascination with literature not only inspired his art, but also led him to keep a comprehensive journal containing both mundane and highly artistic elements. The Journal d'Eugène Delacroix (1893-95) has since attained a unique place in the canon of French literature, and scholar Roger Kimball has called it “perhaps the greatest literary testament any painter has left.”

Biographical Information

Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798, in the small town of Charenton St. Maurice near Paris, France. He was the youngest of four children; his parents were listed as Charles Delacroix and Victoire Oeben, but doubts remain among scholars about his true paternity. Rumors abounded during Delacroix's lifetime that his biological father was not Charles Delacroix, but instead Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who succeeded Charles as Napoleon's minister of foreign relations when Charles's health deteriorated (he died in 1805). The rumors were fostered by Delacroix's strong facial resemblance with Talleyrand and the fact that in the early days of his career the young artist received extensive patronage and support from an anonymous but powerful source. His financial situation changed dramatically with Napoleon's defeat and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The privileged lifestyle of his family disappeared, and with his mother's death in 1814, the orphaned Delacroix struggled economically for much of the next two decades.

Born near the end of the Rococo period, Delacroix began taking art lessons as a teenager. He studied briefly with the academic painter Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, who had also taught Theodore Gericault. Delacroix was keenly interested in the new directions taken by Francisco de Goya, Jean-Antoine Gros, and Gericault. Largely self-taught from looking at the works of Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Titian in the Louvre, he made many acute observations about art in his journal—comments that remain compelling reading for art historians. The young painter sparked controversy (and notoriety) when he submitted “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (also known as “The Barque of Dante”) to the Paris Salon exhibition in 1822. Between 1827 and 1832, Delacroix seemed to produce one masterpiece after another, ultimately producing more than 850 paintings and a great number of drawings, murals, and other works. In 1833, Delacroix painted a group of murals for the king's chamber at the Palais Bourbon. Other works include panels for the Louvre and for the Museum of History at Versailles. Much of his architectural painting involved long hours on uncomfortable scaffolding in drafty buildings, and his health declined. He died on August 13, 1863 in Paris. His apartment was made into a museum in his honor.

Major Works

Delacroix's defining literary piece was Journal d'Eugène Delacroix, which he began during his youth and then continued with more extensive contributions later in his life. Delacroix's own words in the following excerpt from his journal entry dated May 14, 1824, describe his need to write about his art: “But what is this urge not only to write, but to publish one's work? Besides the pleasure of being praised, there is the thought of communicating with other souls capable of understanding one's own, and thus of one's work becoming a meeting place for the souls of men. The very people who believe that everything has already been discovered and everything said, will greet your work as something new, and will close the door behind you, repeating once more that nothing remains to be said … Newness is in the mind of the artist who creates, and not in the object he portrays.” Critics assert that the Journal illuminates his painting and displays Delacroix's considerable literary talent. The Journal articulates the painter's views on art, politics, and life, but his commentary on artistic aesthetics represent a unique contribution to the study of painting. Delacroix found inspiration in the writings of Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott, whose works he often illustrated, and the Journal contains insightful comparative analysis between masterworks of painting and literature. He published articles on a variety of subjects, including early essays on Sir Thomas Lawrence, Raphael, Michelangelo, and a later piece on Nicolas Charlet. Delacroix also conceived an ambitious and innovative project, a treatise on the fine arts called Dictionnaire des Beaux-Arts, which was published in its incomplete form in 1996. The Dictionnaire, designed to contain separate sections on individual artists, mediums, or aesthetic categories, has been described by prominent Delacroix scholar Michèle Hannoosh as a “highly experimental and original kind of writing about art.”

Critical Reception

Biographers have found that Delacroix was not held in favor by the art establishment, which often rejected him both professionally and socially. His Journal, however, has received a steady stream of critical responses, many of which focus on the correlation between Delacroix's written intentions and ambitions for a work of art and the resulting work itself. In one of the earliest critical surveys, C. R. Parsons examined Delacroix's discussion of the interrelations and differences between literature and painting, noting that the painter is one of the few artists to examine this relationship in detail. George Mras agrees with Parsons, stating that Delacroix's Journal is an original literary document that demonstrates the author's need to fully articulate his artistic vision. Roger Porter investigates the introspective nature of the Journal, focusing on the artist's ambiguous and, at times, conflicting notions of self. Hannoosh has examined Delacroix's literary output in a variety of ways, including detailed discussions of the painter's artistic theories, conception of time, and reactions to modernity. The Journal's influence will never match that of the artist's paintings, but it has an enduring value for historians and artists alike, as evidenced by its recent reissue in both French and English editions. Soon after Delacroix's death, German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe ventured to say that the Journal “should be a sort of Bible for young painters.”