Indelibly Delacroix

By Gibson, Michael | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Indelibly Delacroix


Gibson, Michael, The World and I


An exhibition honoring the bicentennial of Delacroix's birth shows that, although the artist's Romantic-era melodramatics may not appeal to modern tastes he remains an admirably able painter.

The exhibition devoted to the last thirteen years of Eugene Delacroix's life--coming this month to the Philadelphia Museum of Art--can be hard to understand if one fails to take into account all the artist's work that came before.

The fourth child of an upper-middle-class family, Delacroix (1798-1863) was eight years old at the death of his father, who was prefect in Bordeaux. Eight years later his mother died, leaving her children in a precarious financial situation. The boy's sister, who lived in Paris, took him under her wing, and he was admitted to the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts the following year.

Except during the last few years of Delacroix's life, his position in the official art world was hardly comfortable, and even today--though he is certainly considered one of the foremost artists of his century--public reception of his work is somewhat ambiguous. To understand this situation, two things must be borne in mind.

First, still dominant in his day was a rigid hierarchy of the arts that regarded historical painting as the most elevated category to which a painter could aspire. Nothing could be further from our sensibility today, and more often than not we may be tempted to dismiss this sort of art as pretentious and bombastic. Second, a number of the functions performed by painters until the end of the nineteenth century have since been almost entirely taken over by photography and motion pictures. As a result, we no longer look for the same things in a painting as did a nineteenth-century audience.

Photography has much reduced the role of portraiture, while the cinema has entirely taken over the function (and the big-screen effects) of such oversize historical canvases as David's Coronation of Napoleon, Gericault's Raft of the `Medusa' (incidentally, the nude figure with his back turned, center foreground, was posed for by Delacroix!), and Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, which dates from an earlier period and is not part of this exhibition.

In fact, while the comparison may not be flattering to any of the parties concerned, it could validly be argued that the true descendants of nineteenth-century history painting were D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the 110 paintings and drawings shown in Delacroix: The Late Work, 18 are devoted to subjects derived from history or fiction. Here we have the Crusaders riding into a devastated Constantinople; there, Demosthenes practicing oratory while pacing along the seashore with pebbles stuffed in his mouth. More numerous still are subjects borrowed from such writers as Dante (Ugolino and His Sons in the Tower), Ariosto (Amadis de Gaule), Shakespeare (Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard), Goethe (a scene from Gotz yon Berlichingen), Lord Byron (The Death of Lara), and even Sir Walter Scott (The Abduction of Rebecca).

More often than not, the staging and posturing can strike one as pretty awful today. The cinema, to be sure, has accustomed us to a more restrained form of acting. Every age, however, has produced some artists who knew how to express emotions with a minimum of means (consider Rembrandt, for instance), while others could not resist thrashing around and "sawing the air" in the manner Shakespeare so rightly deplored. And some eras put a premium on sentiment. Delacroix's period was, after all, the Romantic era (though he never managed to be sufficiently Romantic to please Victor Hugo), and one of the less attractive aspects of French Romanticism--as epitomized by Hugo--was its fondness for bombast.

One historical painting, however, stands out among the rest, and that may be because it looks more like a pastoral or a landscape: Ovid in Exile shows the Latin poet (author of Metamorphoses and The Art of Love) reclining in an unspoiled landscape, chatting with a group of Scythians while one of them milks a mare for him. …

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