Delacroix Reconsidered

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Delacroix Reconsidered


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


"You are the Victor Hugo of painting." "No, you are wrong, Monsieur, I am a pure classicist."

--Delacroix to an admirer, 1840

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

--T. S. Eliot, 1919

One hundred odd pages into The Development of Modern Art (1908), the great German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe observes that "to write adequately about Delacroix would be to relate the whole history of modern art." The rest of that magisterial work can be read as an effort to make good on the claim. The more

one comes to know Delacroix, the more apposite Meier-Graefe's observation seems. And the more exacting. Delacroix stands like a colossus at the outset of modern art, an ineluctable resource without which van Gogh and the Impressionists, Cezanne, Degas, and Matisse suddenly become unimaginable. And yet Delacroix was far from regarding himself as a bold pioneer. "All the great problems of art," he wrote when he was nearing fifty, "were solved in the sixteenth century." About the passion for novelty--sometimes taken to be the very essence of modern art--he could be particularly scathing: "The new," he insisted, "is very ancient, one may even say that it is always the most ancient thing there is."

In fact, Eugene Delacroix is the despair of neat aesthetic categories. Textbooks tell us that he was Romanticism incarnate--"the foremost Neo-Baroque Romantic painter," in the words of one--and they have plenty of evidence on their side. Who but an arch Romantic could have painted The Death of Sardanapalus (1827, Musee du Louvre), that Byronic homage to decadent Orientalism? The manner--Rubens with a high fever--is as startling as the matter: a doomed, sybaritic king cruelly savoring from his couch of luxury the hasty destruction of all he possesses. And who but a Romantic could have painted Liberty Leading the People (1830, Musee du Louvre), that vote of solidarity with the principles of the July Revolution and, by implication, with the Revolution of 1789? This was the Delacroix (or one of them, anyway) who bewitched Baudelaire and unsettled Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche compared Delacroix to his idol-turned-nemesis, Richard Wagner. Both, Nietzsche wrote, were

   great discoverers in the realm of the sublime, also of the ugly and
   gruesome, and still greater discoverers concerning effects, ... virtuosos
   through and through, with uncanny access to everything that seduces,
   allures, compels, overthrows; born enemies of logic and straight lines,
   lusting after the foreign, the exotic, the tremendous, the crooked, the
   self-contradictory.

Nietzsche spoke as one who knew the seduction, the allurement, the compulsion firsthand. His disapproval was an acknowledgment of potency as well as a warning label. The precincts of extremity that he sent bulletins about were dangerous, but they continued to beckon--were dangerous because they continued to beckon. In Art in Crisis (1958), the German art historian Hans Sedlmayr, comparing Delacroix to Wagner and to the architect Gottfried Semper, made a similar point: "In Delacroix, we can already see that curious affection for the Oriental which is a mark of that epoch. It is not the Orient as we think of it today. There was for Delacroix and his contemporaries nothing passive or lethargic about it.... The Orient to the painters of the forties was luxuriant, sensual and voluptuous, a place of lowering passion and heat."

Delacroix would have been surprised, to say the least, by all this: the accusations of vertiginous self-contradiction no less than the evocations of "lowering passion and heat." "The so-called geniuses that we see today" he wrote in 1855,

   full of ridiculous affection and marked by bad taste as much as by
   pretension, are beclouded in whatever ideas they possess; even in their
   personal conduct they continue the bizarre manner which they look on as a
   sign of talent; . 

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