On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
September 17, 2018 – January 6, 2019
At this moment, the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains enough work by Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863) to keep you busy for several lifetimes. There is, comparatively speaking, little of Delacroix’s work in US museums, especially compared to that of his contemporaries Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875) and Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824). So much of Delacroix’s work remains in France because the French government bought so much of it right out of the salon and because so much was taken up in public commissions—the murals in the walls of Saint Sulpice, Paris, for example. Most of us only experience Delacroix through studying art history, and rarely have the opportunity to view the actual works, so the Met has given us a chance to experience him as never before.
The Karen B. Cohen collection of Delacroix drawings has been promised to the Met, and provides a comprehensive view of this central figure of French Romanticism. Drawing, for Delacroix, was as compulsive as breathing: he drew constantly to remember things he noticed, to make studies, copies, and even caricatures (especially one of his arch enemy, Ingres). But the drawings as they are deployed in the first show frustrate attempts to trace Delacroix’s career, because they are grouped according to theme or technique, not by chronology. The collection is introduced by a wonderful crouching tiger from 1839, one of many souvenirs of Delacroix’s visits to the Jardin des Plantes. In the north gallery, we find a very early academic male nude drawing made from models between 1816 and 1820, when the artist was still a student. But the next drawing is from 1855, again male nudes but this time copied from photographs. We see the curator’s quandary: how to display literally hundreds of images coherently. In the case of the paintings brought from the Louvre for the second exhibition, the curators adopt the other tactic: chronology rules, though there too theme gathers clusters of works.
It is his drawings that best enable us to understand who Delacroix was and how he fused drawing with his melodramatic imagination to liberate French painting from Ingres’s neoclassical, academic corset. Delacroix was a Romantic, but what that means for French culture is not what it means for English culture. French Romanticism seems to arise from a clash of personalities rather than complex historical processes. Jacques-Louis David’s revolutionary neoclassicism (The Death of Marat, 1793) broke with the Rococo but engendered Ingres’s neoclassical orthodoxy. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon’s reaction to Ingres produced Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1806), which opened the door to Géricault’s hyper-melodramatic Raft of the Medusa (1819). Delacroix followed Géricault and spent his life hating Ingres, who of course thought Delacroix an abomination. In 1859, French critics savagely attacked Delacroix’s eight outstanding paintings in the Salon—three of which, The Abduction of Rebecca, Ovid among the Scythians, and Christ on Calvary, are present here—because Romanticism was deemed over and Realism (Courbet) was the fresh order of the day.
But about that tiger. The ink sketch is from 1839, toward the middle of Delacroix’s most productive decades: 1824 through 1850. Is the tiger on defense or about to attack? Read in biographical terms, the drawing is a self-portrait: the animal, poised in the aesthetic void of the paper, is all tensed energy. It reflects Delacroix as he was, passionate but self-possessed. Or, as Baudelaire put it, “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion and coldly determined to seek out the means to express passion in the most visible way.”
We see this passion in a drawing from 1824 through ’26, “The Giaour on Horseback,” a preliminary study for the astonishing 1826 painting The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan. Delacroix would not experience the Arab world directly until he went to Morocco in 1832, so the entangled swirl of horse and rider here is purely literary, derived from Byron. But like the tiger, the horseman—despite the fury of his horse—is in control. Delacroix depicts passion, but restrained. His drawings are his diary, his commonplace book, his memory, each one an instant to which he could return.
The paintings, presented in roughly chronological sequence, are of a different nature: they are Delacroix’s public face. To be sure, there are oil sketches included in this vast, sprawling show brought from the Louvre—we have only Delacroix’s preliminary study for, and his own copy of, the huge Death of Sardanapalus—but in the main we are dealing with the finished product. And the view is disconcerting. We are shocked at how literary Delacroix was, with scenes from the Bible, Goethe, Byron, Walter Scott, Chateaubriand, and a host of others. Some (the Goethe lithographs) are genuine illustrations, but others, The Abduction of Rebecca (1858) from Scott’s Ivanhoe or the Giaour works based on Byron, are Delacroix’s reconstructions of the texts. Was it the dynamism of narrative he tried to catch in his own painterly dynamism? Was it the idea of the tableau vivant turned into paint? Some paintings border on the absurd: the Self-Portrait as Ravenswood (ca. 1821), with Delacroix dressed up as a Walter Scott character from Bride of Lamermoor, strikes us as fatuous self-fashioning. At the same time, his portraits, especially of his cousin, the artist Léon Riesener (1835), brilliantly capture the sitter’s powerful presence.
There are, simply put, aspects of Delacroix that elude our sensibility. But so much speaks directly to us. His 1840 Shipwreck of Don Juan, yet another Byronic subject, gathers a huddled mass of men in a lifeboat floating between sea and sky, a pitiless, inhuman universe, drawing lots to see who will be eaten by the others. The 1853 Christ Asleep During the Tempest is a Biblical scene, but is also the mature Delacroix focused on himself, oblivious to fashion. And the monumental Women of Algiers in their Apartment of 1834 is not Orientalism, but rather a foreshadowing of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, women selling themselves just as nineteenth-century artists had to sell themselves on the open market.
This magnificent painting show—which was probably even more wonderful at the Louvre because Delacroix’s most overtly political painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830), stayed there—reveals the artist nearly in full. Together with the Cohen drawing collection, this treasure trove of paintings, drawings, and lithographs shows us the origins of our own modernity. With Delacroix, we see the adventures and dangers of the liberated imagination, the chiaroscuro borderland between order and chaos.