Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art review – some astonishing works
Wild but self-disciplined, fiery but cool: Eugène Delacroix is the hardest of artists to bring into focus……
‘The convulsion feels almost cosmic’: The Death of Sardanapalus, the reduced 1846 version, by Delacroix.
Wild but self-disciplined, fiery but cool: Eugène Delacroix is the hardest of artists to bring into focus. His character and art seem fundamentally opposed. Classical in temperament – stoic and principled, he was formidably diligent and self-contained – his paintings strain in quite other directions. Images that look back to a literary past, they are extreme, passionate, tumultuous, sometimes frightening and yet almost always beautiful. If ever there were a show worth waiting for it would be an almighty survey of the full strangeness of Delacroix.
And Britain has waited a very long time. We haven’t had a show here for more than 50 years – and I am not sure that we have one now. Nearly two thirds of the paintings at the National Gallery are by artists who worshipped Delacroix (Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau), made copies of his paintings (Manet and Gauguin) or painted pictures about him. A devoted fanbase of 19th-century Frenchmen crowd the later rooms with embarrassingly sickly homages.
This might not matter if Delacroix was not so thoroughly shuffled among all these other artists that you have to search for him (his Bathers is practically hidden in a corner), and if the chosen paintings by him were to include even one of his monumental masterworks – The Massacre at Chios, say, or Liberty Leading the People. But presumably the Louvre will not lend them, and there is only one sizeable work in the show, so that a new generation of viewers might imagine Delacroix worked on a comparatively dainty scale.
Redon, meeting him at a party, was fascinated by Delacroix’s leonine good looks and detachment from the social world
Delacroix (1798-1863) had his first Salon success in 1822 with The Barque of Dante, in which the poet endures a terrifying transit of the river Styx in the company of Virgil, their vessel surrounded by dead souls writhing like eels and red-eyed demons biting the vessel. It is a shattering image, the elements all in flux, the pictorial space in uproar; Baudelaire saw there what he later identified as the defining characteristics of Delacroix’s art: “the atmosphere of the human drama and the state of the creator’s soul”. But all we have in London is Manet’s modest copy.
It is also quite hard to get the full shock of The Death of Sardanapalus from the reduced replica made by Delacroix in 1846. The original offended the Salon so much it was actually censured, but at least there is some sense of its utter strangeness – the broiling surface, the flickering, agitated brushwork – in the opening room of this show, where the 1846 version hangs in close contrast to Delacroix’s fastidious self-portrait, made when he was in his late 30s.
Sightly larger than life, but superfine, so that the background and clothes seem almost to melt away, this is a most elusive image. With his neatly clipped moustache and immaculate jacket, Delacroix appears both stylish and closed. The face he turns to the world is carefully controlled, all he is prepared to give. “The mask is everything” is a phrase and a philosophy that recurs all through his superbly eloquent Journal. But still there is the manner in which he paints – the brushwork is nervously mobile.
Redon, meeting him at a party, was fascinated by Delacroix’s leonine good looks and detachment from the social world. You see both in this self-portrait of a man who belongs to no one but himself. Delacroix never married and his closest companion seems to have been his housekeeper. An isolationist, distancing himself even from committed admirers such as Baudelaire, he found his imagery not in contemporary life but in the Romantic literature of Scott and Byron. Even when he is painting the barricades of 1830, the boy with the gun hurtles forward behind a mythical figure of Liberty. For real people, Delacroix prefers the Moroccans observed on a rare trip outside Paris because they seem both alien and nobly impassive.
‘Both stylish and closed’: Self-Portrait, c1837 by Delacroix.
Which might be one way of describing the Assyrian king Sardanapalus, a tiny figure on a vast, heaving bed, face almost unreadable, deeply withdrawn from the scene all around him – which is essentially the end times for everyone at his court. Slaves, concubines, horses, all are about to be torched in his suicidal pyre as the enemy arrives at the gate.
The painting pours down the canvas top left to bottom right in a river of blood-red silk, an upheaval that leaves bodies and architecture flailing. There is no fixed floor, the convulsion feels almost cosmic, and it is not hard to see why Cézanne was so compelled by this extraordinarily original conception of space.
That Delacroix was an icebreaker for modernism is not in doubt. Renoir loves his colours and paints versions of his exoticised Algerians; Manet is fascinated by the structure of his compositions; Van Gogh is compelled by his radiant and flickering brushstrokes. Gauguin carried a reproduction of a Delacroix sketch all the way to Martinique; it appears depicted on the wall behind a voluptuous still life of fruit. But think how much more Gauguin learned from Cézanne or Van Gogh.
If Delacroix's work had been given their own show, his freedom of mind and art might have come across far more strongly
Anita Brookner, incomparable art historian, has written that Delacroix’s direct influence over his contemporaries was in fact negligible. Certainly they collected his work and borrowed from his imagery – raging animals, literary heroes, bathers, flowers – and many were compelled by his (fairly ordinary) theories about colour. But the example of Delacroix as fearless pioneer surely counts as much, and in trying to demonstrate strong visual links this show is not entirely persuasive, even on its own terms.
There is no evidence, for instance, that John Singer Sargent ever saw the elongated portrait of Louis-August Schwiter by Delacroix on which he’s supposed to have modelled his ultra-tall portrait of Lord Ribblesdale (and flattering distortions of the body are Sargent’s stock in trade, what is more). The inclusion of Kandinsky just looks and feels specious. And a gallery full of flowers does Delacroix few favours; his blossoms are completely upstaged by those of Courbet, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
This cannot have been the intention. If only the works of Delacroix had been separated from the scholarly programme and given their own show, his freedom of mind and art might have come across far more strongly. But for anyone prepared to make the effort to find and concentrate purely on his paintings there are some astonishing, not to say exhilarating works.
Christ Asleep during the Tempest, 1853 by Delacroix.
Scenes set on beaches gradually appear apocalyptic: the edge of the world. The field of battle becomes a roiled green ocean. And the sea itself – has anyone ever painted its ambiguity more brilliantly than Delacroix? In Christ Asleep During the Tempest, the boat bearing the sleeping Christ and his stunned disciples surges on a sea that is both a tidal force and a volatile liquid that might transport a man to safety or just as suddenly drown him. As alien as outer space, Delacroix’s sea could be an emblem for his art: mysteriously controlled, powerfully wild.
• Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art is at the National Gallery, London until 22 May