Delacroix is considered to be the greatest of the French Romantic painters. His inspiration came mainly from literature and historical or contemporary events while his study of the optical effects of colour profoundly influenced the work of both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting.
Eugene Delacroix was born near Paris in 1798. Although his father is given as Charles Delacroix, it’s believed that his real sire was the French statesman Charles-Maurice Talleyrand. He was a survivor from the days of the French Revolution and always managed to hold on to positions of power in whatever government was running the country. The belief that he was the artist’s father is strengthened both by Delacroix’s strong resemblance to the diplomat and by the fact that he would consistently receive important patronage from the government via Talleyrand, despite the nonconformist character of his art.
As a schoolboy, Delacroix studied the classics, won several awards for drawing, and formed a passion for music and the theatre. When he left school he studied art under the academic painter Baron Guérin who taught Delacroix to work in the cool and un-passionate Neo-classical style. This basically inflexible manner of painting subjects from the past didn’t really attract Delacroix and it wasn’t long before his attention switched to the warmth and movement of Peter Paul Rubens, and the contemporary subject matter of Theodore Gericault. His work marked an introduction to the expression of dramatic passion or Romanticism in art and it was one of his pictures that had the greatest, single impact on Delacroix’s future. This was his 1819 painting of The Raft of the Medusa, which illustrates the true story of a shipwreck that turned out to have scandalous political implications in France.
Gericault’s picture shows the aftermath of a French shipwreck, whose survivors embarked on a raft and were decimated by starvation before being rescued at sea. From an original 149 on board the float, only 15 were picked up alive. This tragedy caused a furor at home because the untrained captain had wrecked the ship through his own incompetence and had then fought to save himself and the senior officers while leaving the lower ranks to die. Even worse, the ship’s commander had never even been to sea and only got the position through his influence with high connections in the government. The painting itself shows the dead and the dying on the raft, just as the recovery ship hoves into view. The work’s macabre realism, its treatment of the incident as epic-heroic tragedy, and the virtuosity of its drawing, combine to give the painting a worth far beyond mere contemporary reportage.
Gericault’s emotional and imaginative work was the spur that drove Delacroix to compose his own Romantic interpretation of a scene taken from Dante’s classical Divine Comedy. The painting is called The Barque of Dante, and it shows the Italian poet and his ancient Roman guide Virgil, being rowed across the river of the dead in the underworld. All around the skiff those suicides who drowned themselves in their former life and are damned forever, are trying desperately to climb aboard but are being pushed back by Charon the ferryman, into the burning sea of Hell. Delacroix filled this work with swirling movement and reddish glowing colours which flicker through a darkened atmosphere. It gives the work a romantic and brooding sense of melancholy, which the critics didn’t appreciate because it wasn’t painted in the tragic-heroic style expected for such a classical poem. This would not have sold but his real-life father Tallyrand bought it for the state it went on show in the Luxembourg Galleries in Paris.
Delacroix’s new style of painting was part of the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was a reaction in all the arts to the intellectual attitude that characterized many works of literature, painting, music, architecture and historiography in Western civilization. Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, idealization, and rationality which typified Classicism and Neo-classicism in general. Instead, it emphasized the irrational and the emotional, where the main focus was on the passions and the inner struggles of mankind.
Delacroix had realized that he couldn’t accept the academic standards of the classical schools of painting with their insistence on ‘correct’ drawing, the constant imitation of antique statuary, and their admiration for the cool perfection of the old masters like Raphael. He’d come to believe that movement and colour were more important than the cold and frozen manner of classically posed subjects and this was why he leaned more towards the swirling, imaginative works of the Flemish artist Rubens and the bright colours of the Venetian school of painting. He also turned away from the usual subjects taken from mythical and Biblical literature and showed a greater affinity with the likes of Shakespeare and the poet Byron, with whom he shared a strong sense of identification with what he called ‘the forces of the sublime’.
During the Greek War of Independence, the islanders of Chios rebelled against their Turkish masters and threw them off the island. They retaliated by invading Chios and killing over 44,000 of the inhabitants. The remaining 50,000 were removed from their homeland in the Aegean Sea to be sold as slaves. The Greek cause was a popular sentiment among the French people and Delacroix’s response to this outrage was to paint the Massacre at Chios. This was exhibited 2 years after the event and shows the survivors being herded together on the beach just as the slave ships are coming in to land. Those who are young, fit and strong are being taken down to the boats in chains while the wounded, the sick and the old are being systematically butchered on the sands by laughing guards. The nature of Delacroix’s talent is evident in the unity he achieves in expressing the haughty pride of the conquerors, the horror and despair of the defenseless islanders, and the splendour of a vast, open sky and blue sea. His picture shows sympathy for the Greeks, but it has no patriotic sentiments or classical heroics. All we have here is the real truth of the matter – a sad and avoidable tragedy. Many critics deplored this work’s despairing message while it’s thickly painted; seemingly slap-dash style was criticized by the Neo-classical artist Gros who complained that it was ‘Not the massacre of Chios, but the massacre of art itself’.
After the hostile reception to his ‘Massacre’ work, Delacroix finally decided to abandon the classicizing forms and subjects which still dominated French painting, and go instead to England to round out his technical and cultural education. So, in 1825, he left for London to study the more free-ranging works of the English landscape painters like John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.
When the painter returned home, he began a second picture in support of the Greek fight for independence. This painting is named Greece Exploring the Ruins of Missalongae, and refers to the destruction of that place in 1825. After it had been surrounded and besieged by the Turks, the defenders decided to kill themselves by blowing up the whole town rather than surrender this strongpoint to the enemy. This is exactly what they did and Delacroix’s painting of the event shows the female personification of Greece kneeling in the rubble and holding out her arms in an imploring gesture for help. Beneath her feet, we see the hand of a defender who has been crushed to death while behind her back, silhouetted against the smoke of the burning city, a swaggering, triumphant Turkish soldier stands on top of the ruins. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of dying for freedom rather than living a life under tyrannical rule.
Around the same time that Delacroix was painting his ‘Missalongae’ picture, he was also producing paintings such as The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, which introduced subjects of violence and sensuality that would prove to be recurrent. These strands came together best in the Death of Sardanapalus, which was based on a play by Byron about the cruel, but exotic demise of the King of Assyria. The evil Sardanapalus has been cornered in his last stronghold by enemies who have sworn to bring him to justice. Rather than give them this satisfaction, he orders his brutal guards to kill his animals, servants, and concubines before he and his soldiers committ suicide. Delacroix’s emotionally stirring scene is filled with bright colours and exotic costumes where we see the king looking on impassively as his thugs carry out his orders. Especially shocking to the viewers was a scene Delacroix placed in the foreground where a beautiful, naked women struggles with two men as they cut her throat open.
The painting was not seen again for many years because a number of critics and members of the public considered it as a gruesome fantasy involving perversion, lechery and murder. However, this didn’t stop Delacroix pursuing the same theme of death and lust in his next painting, The Murder of the Bishop of Liege. In this work a variety of Romantic interests were synthesized in a scene from the Middle Ages concerning the killing of Louis de Borbon the Bishop of Liege. The site of the Bishop’s murder takes place in the immense vaulted hall of the villain, William de la Mark, who has just ordered his prisoner (the primate) to be dragged out and murdered in front of him while he and his friends enjoy a drunken orgy.
Delacroix also explored a new way of using lithography, which is a form of art used to multiply prints from a single work. Normally, this involved etching a copy of the work into a wood, metal or stone plate, inking it, and then rolling off paper re-productions. The method Delacroix used, Surface or Planar printing, needs no cutting and is still used extensively today for posters and other forms of commercial art. The artist made a large number of these prints taken from scenes in Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and that of Doctor Faust by the German writer Goethe. Faust is a closet drama, which means that it is meant to be read, like a novel, rather than performed on the stage. The story itself is in two parts and it tells the tale of what happened to Faust after he sold his soul to the Devil.
Delacroix’s best known picture and his most influential work came when he produced
Liberty Leading the People, in 1830. He composed this to commemorate the Parisian Revolution which had overthrown the bourbon monarch Charles X, and replaced him with his cousin Louis-Philippe. The picture celebrates the event through a mixture of allegory and contemporary realism in the grand manner. In the centre of this huge oil painting we see the half-naked personification of Liberty standing on top of a shattered barricade. She is carrying a rifle in her left hand while holding aloft a flag in her right. Beneath her feet are the dead and the dying while just behind her, armed Parisian citizens are marching through the smoke and flames. Liberty takes up the greater part of the painting because she is the Spirit of France who has suddenly appeared from nowhere to lead the way in those uncertain times. The banner she bears is the French tricolour which represents Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood.
Delacroix’s painting of the ‘Liberty’ theme was his last successful allegory of realism and political cartoon. It also reflects a change in his style, which became somewhat quieter while still retaining elements of animation and grandeur. Although the government (or rather Tallyrand) bought this work it claimed that its glorification of revolution through violent means was too inflammatory for the times. So it was tucked away out of sight until Louise-Philippe was himself overthrown by another Parisian revolution later on in 1848. In the meantime, 2 years after his Liberty painting, Delacroix traveled to Spain and then North Africa, as part of a diplomatic mission to Morocco just shortly after the French conquered Algeria.
Delacroix went there not primarily to study art, but to escape from the sophistication of Paris so that he could study a more down-to-earth primitive culture. He believed that in their clothing, culture, and attitudes to life, the North Africans provided a visual equivalent to the people of Classical Rome and Greece. He wasn’t disappointed and became entranced by the sights of exuberant nature, the flowing costumes of the natives, and the beauty of the horses. During this trip he painted over 100 oil and water colour sketches, and took numerous drawings and notes based on the life of the people of Morocco. This added a new and personal chapter to his interest in Orientalism which was used to good effect when he returned to Paris in 1833. The first work from his Moroccan impressions was the Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, which he painted from sketches in 1834. In this picture we see three beautiful, half-naked women lying around a hubba-bubba pipe which has just been placed on a carpet by their servant.
In 1838 Delacroix exhibited his ltest painting entitled Medea about to Kill Her Children. Medea of Colchis was the beautiful witch from Greek mythology who saved Jason and the Argonauts from death and also took them to the Golden Fleece. In return, Jason married her and promised to love her forever. However, some years later he planned to put her and their two children aside and marry the queen of Corinth. In revenge, Medea murdered the queen and the children and flew back home to Colchis. Delacroix’s painting shows Medea hiding in a grotto as she pulls out the knife to slaughter her young ones.
By this time, Delacroix’s reputation had soared and he received a number of important commissions to decorate government buildings. The first contract was for a group of murals for the Salon of the King in the Bourbon Palace. Several more commissions came his way including that for the Church of Saint-Sulpice where his murals represent the last effort of this kind in the tradition of the Baroque ceiling painters. Delacroix also painted several canvases on the largest scale of his career such as the Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople.
Delacroix never married and for the last 19 years of his life, he was cared for by his housekeeper. When he died in 1863, he left over 9,000 works including paintings, drawings, watercolours, and prints which were all to be sold off. Along with Turner, Delacroix was the forerunner of the bold technical innovations that strongly influenced the development of subsequent modernist movements. The uninhibited expression of energy, sensuousness colour and movement in his works, his fascination with violence, destruction and the tragic aspects of life, have helped make him one of the most fascinating and complex artistic figures of the 19th century.