Article abstract: Delacroix, a powerful colorist, became the most important figure in the development of the Romantic painting movement in France in the nineteenth century. A prolific artist, he sought to stir viewers deeply by appealing to their senses even though he chose to explore the dark side of their human emotions.
Eugène Delacroix was born in a Paris suburb called Charenton-Saint-Maurice. His father, Charles, a schoolteacher, rose to become minister of foreign affairs in 1795 under the revolutionary regime and French ambassador to the Netherlands some eighteen months later. His wife, Victoire Oeben, descended from a distinguished family of royal cabinetmakers. Controversy surrounds Eugène’s paternity. Some scholars maintain that his biological father was Talleyrand, one of Europe’s most brilliant statesmen, to whom the artist is said to have borne a striking resemblance.
While in Marseilles, as a result of an administrative appointment for his father, Charles, the young Eugène exhibited a precocious talent for piano and violin. His legal father died in late 1805, and Eugène’s mother moved the family back to Paris and enrolled Eugène at the Lycée Imperial, one of the best schools in the capital. There Delacroix excelled in Latin, Greek, and drawing. He also furthered his drawing skills by copying prints in the manner of the English caricaturist James Gillray, a practice which shaped a career-long habit of seeking expressions of character and animated gestures. When not yet eleven, Eugène had a fateful experience—a visit to the Louvre on one of his free days. The sight of such pictorial variety, scale, and technical mastery caused him to decide upon a painting career.
When Delacroix was seventeen, his career goal was aided by an introduction to Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, a successful painter and follower of Jacques-Louis David, head of the neoclassical movement in art and practically an art dictator under Napoleon I. In Guerin’s atelier, Delacroix drew rigorously, learning human anatomy from classical references. He enjoyed working on large historical compositions involving faraway battles. While there he met Théodore Géricault, once a Guerin pupil. The young Delacroix felt an immediate kinship with Géricault’s ideas of infusing French art with sensuousness plus an insistence upon spontaneity. Unfortunately, Delacroix was forced to withdraw from Guerin’s atelier after only six months, probably because he could not afford the cost of tuition.
In 1816, Delacroix enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts. Orthodoxy ruled at this government-patronized school where all students progressed in basically the same manner. The primary methodology, like that for Guerin’s classroom, was the study of classical form through seemingly endless copying of antique imagery from plaster casts, sculpture busts, coins, and, finally, male and female models. Delacroix was responsive to such instruction, but concurrently he searched for flexibility of expression and, on his own, explored the print-making mediums of etching and engraving as well as the new print form lithography.
Delacroix’s growing need for emotional release was soon met by the emergence of a friendship with Géricault. The timing could not have been more propitious, as the slightly older Géricault was embarking on a sensational large work, The Raft of the Medusa (1819). Its subject, chosen to embarrass the restored monarchy of France with the hope of possibly becoming a success by scandal, depicts the moment of the initial sighting of the above-mentioned raft by a passing ship on the Atlantic horizon. The raft contained a dozen or so men who had survived twelve days adrift, their two ropes connected to lifeboats having been mysteriously cut within a day of abandoning the stranded and broken frigate Medusa. The ship had been on its way to Senegal with about four hundred passengers before running aground off the West African coast, thanks to an incompetent captain. Delacroix posed for the seminude figure lying face down near the edge of the raft in the central foreground. Though The Raft of the Medusa was overpoweringly raw, it proved to be the emotional elixir Delacroix was seeking. He may have been marked by its example, for his best paintings subsequently dealt with cruelty and death.
As with other artists falling under the perplexing umbrella of Romanticism, Delacroix’s appearance and manner could be misleading. By age twenty, his aristocratic lineage was evident in his stiff posture and finely etched features. Fashion-conscious, he was one of the first to introduce the English-cut suit to Parisians, and to many people Delacroix was a pretentious dandy. Yet some historians suggest that the artist’s elegant attire and fine manners were used to mock France’s increasingly industrialized society, which he thought was crassly hopeful in its newfound material prosperity.
Delacroix also had a withdrawn and pessimistic nature, which he cultivated further by emulating the melancholic pathos in Dante’s poetry and the works of George Gordon, Lord Byron. By contrast, the painter’s work Delacroix most admired from the past was that of Peter Paul Rubens, whose high-keyed colors and dramatic action enthralled him. Yet it was Lord Byron who became a personal hero with a personality profile containing passion, bravery, elegance, melancholy, a love of freedom, and pessimism.
Desiring a successful career in painting, which in his day meant salon acceptance, Delacroix began a salon entry in 1821, one that would ideally attract critical reviews but not a storm of controversy. Touched by reading The Inferno from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, he selected an episode from Canto VIII. Known by various titles, for example, Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx and The Bark of Dante, the 1822 painting simulated the emotional potential and large scale of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, still fresh in Delacroix’s memory. Unfortunately, polite taste, long accustomed to contained forms, polished technique, and clarity of color and values, was not ready for the ambiguous spaces and murky tones of Delacroix’s painting.
Yet something more troublesome than salon taste marked Delacroix’s subsequent career, namely the fact that many of his best paintings...
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