The French painter Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) repudiated the neoclassic manner and developed a freer and more romantic style with a particular emphasis on color.
For 40 years Eugène Delacroix was one of the most prominent and controversial painters in France. Although the intense emotional expressiveness of his work placed the artist squarely in the midst of the general romantic outpouring of European art, he always remained an individual phenomenon and did not create a school. As a personality and as a painter, he was admired by the impressionists, postimpressionists, and symbolists who came after him.
Born on April 28, 1798, at Charenton-Saint-Maurice, the son of an important public official, Delacroix grew up in comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances in spite of the troubled times. He received a good classical education at the Lycée Impérial. He entered the studio of Pierre Narcisse Guérin in 1815, where he met Théodore Géricault.
Delacroix's public career was launched with a flourish at the Salon of 1822, in which he exhibited Dante and Virgil in Hell. Large, somewhat hastily painted, still traditional in its bas-relief type of design, it was nevertheless novel in subject matter and in the emotional intensity conveyed by powerful, contorted forms and smoldering, vibrant tones.
Delacroix shared the new Anglophilia of French culture, played the role of a dandy, read Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott, visited England, and was impressed by English artists such as Richard Bonington and John Constable. Indeed, Constable's landscapes are supposed to have influenced Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, shown in 1824. An immense canvas, almost 14 feet high, it was obviously designed to create an impression at the Salon. Although Baron Gros called it "the massacre of painting," the government purchased it. Based on an incident in the Greek war of independence, the painting is as exotic as Delacroix's later North African pictures and is filled with a romantic taste for violence.
Among the dozen paintings Delacroix submitted to the Salon of 1827-1828, the immense, baroque Death of Sardanapalus, based on a theme by Byron, is remarkable for its theatrical fervor and luxuriant color. Liberty Leading the People, inspired by the Revolution of 1830, closed the first phase of Delacroix's career. It is almost the only important work, except for the Massacre at Chios, that had any connection with contemporary history: the scene was Parisian but the interpretation was allegorical.
The stimulus of a fortuitous 6-month trip to Morocco in 1832 had a lifelong effect on Delacroix's development and gave him an inexhaustible store of pictorial materials. The most immediate result was Women of Algiers in Their Apartment ( 1834), in which an Oriental subject allowed for the kind of "visual feast" and poetic effect that he always considered the proper aims of painting.
Also notable among the pictures of the 1830s and 1840s by Delacroix were historical scenes painted on commission, such as the Battle of Taillebourg (1837) and the Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (1840). They reflect his natural taste for the grand manner and for large-scale compositions, as well as his persistent enthusiasm for the dynamic style of Peter Paul Rubens and the mundane splendor of Paolo Veronese.
Those who believe that Delacroix turned back to classicism in the 1830s could point to his painting Medea (1838), a picture that could almost have been painted by Jacques Louis David. "I am a pure classic," Delacroix insisted at this time, only to confess in a paradoxical counter-statement, "If by romanticism they mean the free manifestation of my personal impressions … then I am a romantic and have been one since I was fifteen."
In 1833 Delacroix began his career as a mural painter, and in the next 28 years he executed paintings in Paris in the Chamber of Deputies (Palais-Bourbon), the Senate (Luxembourg Palace), the church of St-Denis-du-St-Sacrement, the Louvre, the City Hall, and St-Sulpice. Drawing heavily on classical and biblical themes and aided by assistants, he employed a technique in which the colors were mixed with wax. Although many of the subjects were traditional, the style in which they were carried out was full of romantic fire and excitement (Attila Hemicycle, finished 1847, Palais-Bourbon). In the ceiling panel of the Louvre, the Triumph of Apollo (1851), Delacroix achieved a highly successful baroque manner of his own. The murals are among the finest French decorative paintings.
In the 1850s Delacroix's natural tendency toward freedom in the treatment of form and looseness of touch became more marked: Marphise (1852) and the sketch for Eurydice (1856) are good examples. Such works are reminiscent of the boldness of the late Titian—and of the late Auguste Renoir. Brilliance and luminosity of color increase; all forms are fused together in a dense pictorial whole.
There is an appreciable increase in Christian themes in the final period of Delacroix's career. "I was much impressed by the Requiem Mass," he wrote in his Journal (Nov. 2, 1854). "I thought of all that religion has to offer the imagination, and at the same time of its appeal to man's deepest feelings." The Christ on the Lake of Genesareth (1854) in Baltimore illustrates the rough-textured, agitated, and tumultuous style that often appeared in his final years of painting. This theme, which seems to have had a broad symbolic significance for the artist, must have become truly obsessive, for there are seven different versions of it.
In the last 10 or 12 years of his life Delacroix showed a renewed interest in the "pagan" North African subjects of his Moroccan experience of 1832. Among the most striking are the tiger and lion hunts and scenes of animal violence, which were created as much from imagination and from Rubens as from direct observation of animal behavior in Africa or Paris. Perhaps the sketch Lion Hunt (1854), done in preparation for a large painting in Bordeaux, is the most astonishing of these works. The wild, explosive design, created by fluid patches of warm color, has very properly been considered an anticipation of Fauvism.
Charles Baudelaire's enthusiastic praise of Delacroix's contribution to the Salon of 1859 was not enough to outweigh the bitter criticism. In any case, the painter decided not to exhibit at the Salon again. In 1861, disappointed by the poor response to his new mural paintings in St-Sulpice (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), Delacroix wrote that he did not see much point in continuing with work that interested only 30 people in Paris. And yet, if he had been offered other commissions and had had the strength to do them, he would have gone on. By that time artistic work had become his only passion, his only solace. Two years later failing health overcame his determined will, and Delacroix died in Paris on Aug. 13, 1863.
In the early years of his career Delacroix found black a valuable "color." Later he said, "Gray is the enemy of all paintings"; and finally he wrote, "Banish all earth colors." Although he does not seem to have used a fully spectral palette, he moved in that direction, exploited complementary contrasts, and demonstrated the usefulness of separate touches and the possibility of constructing a picture by means of individual, interlacing brush-strokes and patches of color. These devices were developed further by the impressionists and postimpressionists. On the other hand, the symbolists followed Delacroix in the pictorial projection of inner, imaginative fantasies and in the abstractly expressive use of color.
Further Reading on Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix
Delacroix's Journal was translated by Walter Pach in 1937. Lucy Norton did another translation of the greater part of the Journal in 1951. The most comprehensive study of Delacroix is René Huyghe, Delacroix (trans. 1963). The best short account is Lee Johnson, Delacroix (1963). Independent in outlook, and with many unfamiliar comparative illustrations, is Frank A. Trapp, The Attainment of Delacroix (1970). Two excellent but more specialized books are George P. Mras, Eugène Delacroix's Theory of Art (1966), and Jack J. Spector, The Murals of Eugène Delacroix at Saint-Sulpice (1967).