Delacroix: Leading Light of the French Romantic Movement

By Miller, Peter B. | USA TODAY, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Delacroix: Leading Light of the French Romantic Movement


Miller, Peter B., USA TODAY


The artist formed the link between the traditions of the past and modernism, ultimately having a profound impact upon the Impressionists.

Throughout the career of Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, his expressive use of color, dynamic compositions, and stirring subjects drawn from literature and contemporary events provoked his critics and endeared him to his champions. Despite the occasional controversy surrounding his submissions to the Paris Salon, an annual government-sponsored art exhibition, Delacroix, born in 1798, built a reputation as one of the foremost French artists of the 19th century. An exponent of a style that made free use of vibrant colors, Delacroix was the lifelong rival of neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who advocated a more traditional linear style.

The works produced during the final 15 years of Delacroix's prodigious career are exemplary of his spontaneous painterly style, whereby specific details were subordinated to over-all emotional and visual effect. His late paintings demonstrate perhaps better than his large-scale Salon works those qualities of his art that later artists such as Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin admired most. While Delacroix's late works stem from his continued interest in signature subjects--animal hunts, North African motifs, the Greek War of Independence, and scenes from the works of his favorite writers--it is the assurance of his style, mastery of the painted surface, and manipulation of color that had the greatest impact on subsequent painters. With his public reputation more or less secure by 1848--although election to the Institute de France, an important honor for a 19th-century French artist, eluded him until 1857--Delacroix's late works reveal a highly introspective and self-conscious artist consumed by a desire to fine-tune his technique and stake out his place in history.

The period from 1848 to his death in 1863 is marked by several curious contradictions in Delacroix's life and art. He was an urban sophisticate, yet he declared that he felt more comfortable at his country house at Champrosay, near Fontainbleau. While he was an ardent student of nature who executed carefully observed studies of plants and animals, Delacroix insisted that the artist should give free reign to the imagination, even if it meant taking liberties with scientific fact. Raised in a secular milieu and steeped in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers who scorned religious faith as irrational, Delacroix produced an astounding group of heartfelt religious pictures late in his career. Furthermore, while he was seen by many as a progenitor of modern painting, Delacroix aligned his work with the masters of the past and was extremely conservative in his own taste and manners, frequently expressing distaste for modernity.

Reflective of his carefully considered theories concerning color and technique, many of which are recorded in a journal that he kept from 1822 to 1824 and took up again in 1847, Delacroix's paintings nonetheless were dismissed by some critics as unfinished and sloppy in execution. Lastly, while Delacroix's pictures, particularly those from his later career, convey a spirit of loneliness and isolation, he enjoyed an active, almost frenetic, social life, frequenting the opera, theater, and gatherings of other artists, writers, and musicians, counting the writer George Sand and the composer and musician Frederic Chopin among his dearest friends.

Delacroix, a voracious reader and an accomplished thinker in his own right, was raised in an extremely cultivated environment. His mother, Victoire Oeben, was the daughter of a renowned cabinetmaker to Louis XV. It has been suggested, although without documentary evidence, that Delacroix's father was not Charles Delacroix, briefly Minister of Foreign Affairs and later ambassador plenipotentiary to the Netherlands, but Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, the French statesman and principal negotiator of French foreign policy in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. …

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