The Last Great Literary Painter

Eugène Delacroix’s Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, 1835(Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I’d prepared myself to be disappointed by the Delacroix exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Asher Miller, in collaboration with Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre. On its website, the Met describes it as “the first comprehensive retrospective devoted to this amazing artist ever held in North America.” There are good reasons it’s taken so long: No museum will ever be able to encompass a truly comprehensive survey of Delacroix’s work, and still less any museum other than the Louvre—the Met’s partner in this venture, where the show first took place last spring and summer.

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What are the paintings that come to mind when you think of Delacroix? Probably two: The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) and Liberty Leading the People (1830). Both are works of Delacroix’s extraordinarily energetic first maturity (he was born just outside Paris in 1798)—unforgettable images that are nonetheless rather atypical of his oeuvre, yet which seem to predict later phases of French art. Delacroix invested his immense enthusiasm for the popular uprising known as the July Revolution of 1830 in the painting that commemorated it, which he executed in the immediate aftermath. Liberty Leading the People imagines a triumphant unanimity among different classes who would soon enough rediscover their irresolvable conflicts. Delacroix, disillusioned, would later steer clear of political commitments, cultivating instead a sort of Epicurean pessimism (Allard and Fabre, in their meticulous essay for the exhibition catalog, speak of a “reactionary skepticism”). And yet, with its carefully observed rabble and heroically flag-waving, bare-breasted Marianne, Liberty Leading the People looks forward to the revolutionary realism of Gustave Courbet, specifically to his notion of a “real allegory” mixing the concrete and the symbolic.

Likewise, Sardanapalus—which, like Liberty, is absent from the Met, though it’s represented there by a preparatory oil sketch dated 1826–27, as well as by a scaled-down replica that the artist made for himself in 1845–46, having finally succeeded in selling the original—should not mislead us into imagining all of Delacroix’s work as conjuring a Symbolist or decadent dream world. Based on a play by Byron, Sardanapalus illustrates a legendary episode in which the last Assyrian king had all his goods destroyed and all his servants and concubines murdered rather than let them fall into the hands of invaders. In the painting, the monarch, reclining on his bed, observes the massacre from the background; beauty and horror are mingled for the corrupt delectation of a potentate discovering that his power is ultimately futile—an allegory of what we would now call toxic masculinity. Horrified critics at the Salon of 1828, who condemned the work as totally immoral, must have realized that the painter somehow identified with the debauched protagonist, for whose eye this apocalyptic spectacle has been arranged. This is the Delacroix whose sensibility would nourish the fever dreams of Symbolist artists like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon.

Paintings like Sardanapalus and Liberty—and other important early works in the Louvre’s collection, like Delacroix’s first success, The Barque of Dante (1822), or The Massacre at Chios (1824)—have not traveled to New York. As if in recompense, we do get Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), the painting that probably had the greatest impact on artists of the 20th century—both Matisse and Picasso were obsessed with it, and it had intoxicated Cézanne before them. But if this, like the other two paintings I’ve mentioned, and indeed most of Delacroix’s other best-known work, dates from well before his 40th birthday, there’s a reason: Those were the years when the painter was giving his all to the production of works that would make an impact at the annual Salon, the only way for a French painter at the time to attract a public and find support and patronage, mainly from inside the government. Once he had achieved this, around the mid-1830s, Delacroix focused his most concerted efforts not on paintings for exhibitions, but on what we might now call site-specific works: murals, mostly for government buildings, but also for churches.

And yet Delacroix’s murals are his least familiar works—despite the fact that most are in the heart of Paris. Yes, a few hardy art lovers make their way to the Church of St. Sulpice, the home of his best-known murals, and even those who have never been there may have seen a reproduction of his extraordinary scene of Jacob Wrestling With the Angel (1854–61). But hardly anyone knows his decorations for the Palais Bourbon, where the French National Assembly meets, unless they’ve been there on official business. An art historian who’s studied them reports “poor and at times appalling lighting…while the dead weight of bureaucratic pomp encourages the sensation that the viewer is an interloper in sanctuaries of power and privilege.”

Across five centuries, grand cycles of murals—at once narrative and decorative—probably represent the pinnacles of artistic ambition in European painting: Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy; Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome; Tintoretto’s work for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. Such works never move—or do so only once, permanently, as when Rubens’s Marie de’ Medici cycle was transferred from the Luxembourg Palace to the Louvre. Delacroix was the last exemplar of this tradition (at least until the rise of the Mexican mural movement in the 1920s): the last of the painters whose work can never really be encompassed by a museum exhibition, because so many of his important paintings can’t be transported. That’s why I expected to be disappointed at the Met.

Delacroix was also arguably the last great literary painter—working, as Baudelaire would recall after the painter’s death, in “a kind of furious rivalry with the written word.” Besides mining the Bible and classical myth, he took his themes from Goethe, Shakespeare, Ariosto, Sir Walter Scott, and—as I’ve already mentioned—Byron, among others. For some observers at the time, such as the critic Jules Castagnary, all of this meant that Delacroix was, simply, “the last great painter.”

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None of his successors, of the artists who took inspiration from him—not Courbet, or Manet, or Degas, or Cézanne, or any of the Impressionists or Post-Impressionists or Fauves or Cubists—steeped their art in narrative, in illustration, as Delacroix did. The only exceptions were some of the Symbolists, who thereby put themselves in a position marginal to their own time. As for the rest, their poetry of everyday life did not allow for anything but a focus on the now. What the better artists of the later 19th century took from Delacroix, they found in his technique, in his extraordinary manner of weaving colors together without mixing them—a method he called flochetage—and in the parallel weaving together of desire and disillusion that he conjured as much out of those colors as out of the stories that ostensibly inspired his paintings.

As it turns out, I was far from disappointed by what I saw at the Met. Even in the absence of many major paintings, the exhibition made it clear why the last great literary painter continued to hold such fascination for generations of artists who would forgo overt narrative in their own work. And contrary to the nineteenth-century critic who warned that “M. Delacroix’s small paintings are absolutely unintelligible, unless they are viewed with the large ones in mind,” it turns out that an exhibition like this one, which necessarily puts an accent on the smaller works (including many prints and drawings as well as paintings), reveals the fertility of Delacroix’s invention and the depth of his exploration. Allard and Fabre note that for his last presentation at the Salon, in 1859 (four years before his death), Delacroix showed modestly sized works, “concentrated worlds, covering in appearance a small surface but delving deep into time and the spaces the artist has passed through over nearly forty years.”

It is the first decade of Delacroix’s career, from his initial success with The Barque of Dante in 1822 through his journey to North Africa in 1832, that still accounts for the painter’s image as the pioneer of Romanticism in French painting, the rebel who broke away from the neoclassical academic formal strictures and didacticism that had been promulgated by Jacques-Louis David, the preeminent painter of the revolutionary era. In doing so, he accepted the baton passed to him by his friend Théodore Géricault, seven years his elder, whose Raft of the Medusa (1818–19) was Delacroix’s wake-up call, but who died tragically young in 1824. Like all great artistic movements, this Romanticism looked back in order to look forward, reviving the dynamism and turbulence of the Baroque era in order to express the bubbling discontent of the generation that came of age under the unpopular Bourbon Restoration.

Delacroix could not entirely give himself over to the realism proclaimed by TheRaft of the Medusa—this would await the next generation, that of Courbet—but he entirely rejected the neoclassical idealization of heroic male protagonists. At the Met, one of his finest works of the 1820s is the life-size portrait (1826–27) of a young fellow painter, Louis-Auguste Schwiter, as a sort of English dandy in a landscape setting. (It’s no wonder this painting ended up in London’s National Gallery.) The quasi-Mannerist elongation of Schwiter’s figure conjures a sense of elegance, yet the stiffness of his stance suggests a congenial awkwardness, a kind of chafing against the constraints of his chosen self-image; and the darkly flickering brushstrokes of the flowers and foliage of the large potted plant to his left seem to imply that there are more fluid ways for a cultivated being to flourish.

Elsewhere, realism is mitigated by allegory. The symbolic female figure at the center of Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826) is surrounded by raw details of the massacre following the Ottoman siege of the city, notably the dead hand emerging from under the stones in the foreground. But her own expression is strangely calm as she gestures toward the destruction around her, apparently asking the viewer simply to bear witness, yet by her very uprightness proclaiming that Greece remains unbowed. This idealized woman of the people brings Delacroix closer than we think to the neoclassical aesthetic against which he was supposed to have rebelled. She reminds us, too, that Delacroix was heir to several generations of painters and dramatists who had—as the art historian Edgar Wind once observed—“rediscovered for themselves the law of Racine that distance of country is as conducive to grandeur as distance of time, and that it allows what the classical rules of the grand style had forbidden: the representation of contemporary events without disguise.”

The Greek struggle for independence offered a sense of drama not easily located in the mundanity of French daily life. In North Africa, even the uneventful doings of ordinary people would exert their fascination on Delacroix. The proposal that he accompany a diplomatic mission to Morocco, returning by way of Algeria and Spain, came at an ideal time: the moment when, as Allard and Fabre write, Delacroix “faced the question of how to continue, how to find new inspiration. In under ten years, he had explored and revitalized nearly every genre: history painting, modern subjects, animal painting, portraiture, still life, literary subjects, the nude.” Now what? How would he negotiate the onset of what we’d now call his midcareer?

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The journey gave Delacroix a chance to take a perspective on what he’d done so far. For the period of his journey, from January to July 1832, his studio would be his sketchbooks—there would be no question of working on canvas—and he imbibed impressions that would stay with him for life. Delacroix had realized, as Women of Algiers in Their Apartment shows, that geographical and cultural distance would allow him to find grandeur not only in action and suffering, but also in the banal inactivity of daily existence. Only 30 years later would Édouard Manet demonstrate how to manage this same feat for the daily life of the metropolis.

The mission to Morocco followed France’s then-recent invasion of Algeria; diplomacy and colonialism worked hand in hand. For some, it may raise a suspicion that none of this is directly represented in Delacroix’s art. But the fact is that he was no orientalist. As Allard and Fabre point out, even his use of the everyday word “apartment”—rather than “harem”—in the title of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment shows how little he was tempted by cheap exoticism, the conqueror’s supercilious wonderment at the incomprehensible ways of the subjugated. Delacroix accords his four female subjects (one a black servant) full dignity, even as the material solidity of the scene “dissolves” into what Cézanne extolled as a “symphony of colors.” And yet, how different is Delacroix’s conception of color from that of Cézanne or the Impressionists, whose palette is so much brighter than his! In Women of Algiers, as in so many of Delacroix’s paintings, there is a warm, inviting darkness to the weave of hues, which seem always to move in and out of the shadows. Here, no obscurity is ever absolute, but rather serves as the matrix from which colors arise and return to rest.

It perhaps should not be surprising that Delacroix, in assimilating all that was so new to him in North Africa, would fall back on familiar terms in an effort to understand it. He saw the Maghreb as classical terrain, imploring a correspondent at home to “imagine, my friend, what it is like to see figures like consuls—Catos, Brutuses—lying in the sun, walking in the streets, mending old shoes.” Perhaps it is for this reason that, on his return to France, and for more than a decade to follow, his work shows surprisingly more and more influence from the neoclassical tradition in French painting that he was supposed to have overthrown—not that he would ever abjure his painterly weave of colors in favor of the classicists’ hard, sculptural volumes, but his compositions often became more planar and symmetrical. Thus the disposition of the figures in a late reminiscence of his African journey, the 1848 Arab Players, is as frieze-like as a David or a Poussin. But the immediate change could be seen in his embrace of biblical and classical subjects, which in the 1830s and ’40s become more numerous than the literary subjects that had previously entranced him. Consider Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (1836) or Medea about to Kill her Children (1838), in its way a sort of female counterpart to Sardanapalus: The monumental figures in these paintings possess a concentration of form that is new in Delacroix’s work.

Even so, this effort to encompass classical solidity in his pictorial vocabulary would never be Delacroix’s major concern. For him, energy would always trump form. The underlying impetus of his development is beautifully illustrated by the juxtaposition at the Met of two treatments of the same scene from a poem by Byron. The first version of Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, dates from 1826, the period when Delacroix was pegged as the Romantic rebel; the second, in the Petit Palais in Paris, from 1835, when he was experimenting with aspects of classicism. In the earlier version, although the two protagonists and their horses are splendidly conjured, each one has been conceived separately; likewise for the landscape in which they’ve been placed, along with some secondary figures. In the later version, the two men and their animals have been united into a single dynamic entity—the combat itself, rather than the opponents who have become inextricable within it, and whose centripetal force commands the entire rectangle in an indifference to everything else that is illustrated by the corpse trampled under the two horses’ feet. Here we see how the painter had taught himself to overcome one of his great problems—that of creating a sense of unity in his paintings. In his earlier works, he clearly invented each figure separately and then the setting, trying to impose a unity after the fact. Later, he accustomed himself to working from a single intuition of all the large masses as a complex whole, then filled in the details. The ideal was Rembrandt, in whose works, Delacroix felt, “the background and figures are one. The interest is everywhere, nothing is separate.”

In his quest for unity, this last great narrative painter was gradually remaking himself as a painter of the pensive moment, for whom even the whirlwind of combat could become a sort of self-contained object of contemplation. And yet, something more like the kind of narrative impetus that was Delacroix’s starting presupposition—but rejected by modernism—has been making its way back into some of the most interesting painting of recent years, by artists as different as Karen Kilimnik, Kerry James Marshall, and Chris Ofili. Does the literary side of Delacroix’s art therefore have renewed relevance now, after a century and a half of irrelevance? If so, it would confirm one of the most striking observations in the artist’s journals: that “the new is very old; you might even say it is the oldest thing of all.”