Delacroix? The visceral Romantic: a great painter on the brink of modernity, but cross he did not, „Modern“ he was not

Ferdinand Victor Eugène DELACROIX (1798-1863, 65)


  • His bold passionate color and brushork encouraged later important Modernists.
  • But this he applied resolutely to the anti-Modern, his own extravagant melodramatic
  • Though he shook France from the Neo-Classicist grip of J-L David, Ingres and Gros.


Featured image….

1852, Dieppe sea scape, Oil on cardboard mounted on wood, 35 x 51 cm, Louvre.



  • Delacroix became an important influence on the „Modern“ art revolution post c1850, reaching a string of important „Modern“ painters, from Manet and Degas, especially Renoir, also Cezanne and Singer Sergeant (his 1902, Lord Ribblesdale), Redon, and Van Gogh, especially his extraordinary 1889 Pietà (after Delacroix) which he painted from seeing only a black and white engraving of Delacroix’s image. His Women of Algiers stirred successors, particularly Picasso.
  • But his influence on the emergence of the Modern was only through his painting technique, his bold energetic color and looser brushstrokes. For Delacroix the painter stayed foremost a pillar of Romanticism, not the popular variety revering Nature but his own supercharged theatrical neo-Baroque version applied to dramatic scenes from history or myth, of cruel violence and sex, eroticism, political rebellion, and exotic foreign life.
  • Thus despite living alongside the unfolding Industrial Revolution –the greatest shift in Man’s material affairs since he left Africa – he painted nothing of contemporary French rural or urban life, something which awaited Jean-François Millet (1814-75) and Gustave Courbet (1819-77), and the Barbizon School.
  • Thus, mainly because his art looked back not forward, he „had no pupils and so no direct artistic heirs“. Though he was influential through writing well as painting.
  • So the National Gallery of London’s current exhibition (closes May 22, 2016), „Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art”, clearly overstates the connection, in the cause of provoking debate, and the turnstiles.
  • Though the artists did leave one bold, colorful late (1852) watercolor which definitely talks to the Impressionists.
  • Delacroix had an important literary dimension, read a lot and wrote meaningfully. A famous final entry in his journal, from June 22, 1863, reads: The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.Spoken like a true Romantic! You would not find that in Otto Dix’s notebooks.
  • His good friend the pivotal Modernist poet Charles Baudelaire said of Delacroix’s 1839 Self portrait, he looks like „a caged tiger“, and in 1863 after he died, lauded him as painter of „the invisible, the impalpable, reverie, the nerves, the soul; and this he did without any means other than contour and colour.”



  • Eugène Delacroix – „Slight, fierce“ – was very much his own man, ambitious and focussed, strong-minded and hard working. He was a rebel, an outsider, and something of a dandy, reminding us of Whistler?! He was social and well connected (partly through his family), a friend for example of Chopin and George Sand, but he never partnered, lived as the „cultivated bachelor“ (Peter Campbell, 1993), much like Degas, Proust, and Henry James. „This imperious, consummately sophisticated yet solitary man..” (Julian Bell, 2016).
  • He was also melancholic and not optimistic about Man’s progress and outlook. His health troubled his final decade and a half.
  • Delacroix had a privileged upbringing (apparently it’s unclear who his real father was), though his family was not that well off after c1830. So he was well schooled, then embarked on a traditional path as an artist, training at the Lycée Impérial in Paris, drinking deeply of old art, then partaking of the important Salon system.
  • But, self-confident, he did not last long at art school, and was to an important degree self-educated, if effectively, becoming familiar with the past masters, feeding especially on Rubens, also Raphael and Velazquez, and the Venetians Titian and Veronese. And he brought a strong literary appreciation to his work, respecting figures like Dante, Shakespeare and Byron
  • His first major painting (at only 24), The Barque of Dante was hung at the 1822 Salon and responded strongly to the composition and energy in Gericault’s recent (1818) Raft of the Medusa. It made an immediate impact and became his most copied work. He quickly became the „enfant terrible“ of French painting, following in 1827 with his large (nearly 4m x 5m!) melodramatic The Death of Sardanapalus, which “sealed his notoriety”. His famous 1830 Liberty leading the People followed the 1830 Paris revolution and won praise at the 1831 Salon.
  • So among his contemporaries Delacroix was much influenced by the 7 years older Theodore Géricault (1791-1824, 32) and particularly by his monumental (around 5m x 7m) politically and artistically controversial 1818 masterpiece Raft of the Medusa, a cornerstone of French Romanticism,  based on the 1816 wreck of a French naval frigate in the Indian Ocean in which the ship’s captain was culpable. The painting drew heavily on Michelangelo, but also Raphael, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823), French Neo-Classicists David and Gros, and Caravaggio. A bit like Delacroix Géricault in his short life was also his own man, did not mind stirring. Apart from exuberant larger history paintings he painted some powerful realistic portraits.
  • Early too Delacroix was influenced importantly by English painters. He was impressed by John Constable‘s large Haywain which he saw at the 1821 Paris Salon, and he shared a studio in Paris with Richard Bonnington, impressed by his watercolors. He visited England in summer 1825, seeing Turner’s striking Romantic works. He liked things English, including the clothes, Shakespeare, and especially Byron and his poems. English painting (cf portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence) inspired his only full length portrait, Baron Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826-30), a Romantic image of the artist and dandy which was rejected by the 1827 Salon then altered.
  • Delacroix looked forward in his painting approach and through this can be seen as contributing to the Modern. He pioneered especially in loosening, coarsening his paint brushstrokes, and in heightening and pushing his use of color, eg in flochetage: “embellishing an area of one colour with individual strokes of another, to animate that part of the painting, so that it would seem to vibrate..” He “opened the floodgates for the virtuoso, coloristic painting of modernity.” (MT Lewis, 2015). His enthusiasm for colour and exotic subjects was strongly stimulated by his 1832 North Africa visit in the wake of 1830 French imperial incursion there. In Algeria and Morocco he relished the bold color, the light and the alien foreign life. This provoked a number of major paintings, like the 1834 Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1838, Fanatics of Tangier, and 1837-41, Jewish Wedding in Morocco.
  • But overall, despite „Modernistic“ clues in his painting style, he was a mainstream Romantic. His art clearly looked back not forward. He painted nothing of contemporary rural or urban life.
  • But his „Romanticism is not that of reverence for nature but a suggestion of extremes, a celebration of the marginal and deviant.” (Jonathan Jones, 2002). Thus his subjects – mostly from history, recent and distant – focussed on the extravagant, violent, foreign, exotic. His Massacre at Chios (1824) depicted an incident from Greece’s recent war with the Ottoman Turks – the death of near 20,000 inhabitants of Greek island of Chios, and enslavement of the other 70,000 – but from within his powerful Romantic mindset. His 1826 Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, an allegory of the defeat of the Greeks, continued the theme of resistance to Ottoman Turk aggression, popular then in Britain, cf Byron’s participation.
  • Soon after (1827-28) he painted the large violent / erotic drama, Death of Sardanapulus, a story sourced from Byron about an Assyrian king who chooses suicide over surrender, but orders his (naked) lady courtiers to depart with him, in a violent erotic slaughter, recalling Rubens. For some reason it bothered the 1827 Salon.
  • His Medea about to Kill Her Children, from Greek mythology and exhibited at the 1838 Salon, sustained controversy over his choice of violent confronting subjects.
  • Looking further back he painted major works on Classical subjects (1844, Last words of Marcus Aurelius, and 1838, The Justice of Trajan). And later, in the 1850s, he painted about 6 versions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, of which the 1854 Met version is striking for its colour and drama, a painting which caught Van Gogh’s eye in Paris 1886: “Christ’s boat—I’m talking about the blue and green sketch with touches of purple and red and a little lemon yellow for the halo, the aureole—speak a symbolic language through color itself.”
  • Again wearing his Romantic cloak, and perhaps recalling his affection for Michelangelo, for about the last 1/3rd of his working life, from 1833 on, he laboured hard on a sequence of grand murals and ceiling paintings for Government buildings in Paris (commissioned by a well placed relative) chiefly on the theme of the rise (ancient Greeks) and fall (Attila the Hun!) of civilisation, perhaps suiting the artist’s pessimistic demeanour. The effort probably also shortened his life.
  • A marvellous atmospheric late landscape (Seascape at Dieppe 1852, later owned by Degas, anticipated the Impressionists?
  • He was „old school“ in his approach to executing major works, undertaking much prior preparation. He kept extensive notebooks, sketchbooks.



1822, The Barque of Dante, oil on canvas, 189 x 246 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris



1824, The Massacre at Chios, Oil on canvas, 419 x 354 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris


  1825-26, Louis d’Orléans Showing his Mistress, Oil on canvas, 35,2 x 26,8 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid



1826-27, Still-Life with Lobster, Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 106,5 cm, Louvre


1827, The Death of Sardanapalus, Oil on canvas, 392 x 496 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris



1827, Woman with a Parrot, Oil on canvas, 24,5 x 32,5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon


1828, Louis-Auguste Schwiter, Oil on canvas, 218 x 144 cm, National Gallery, London



1830, Liberty Leading the People (28th July 1830), Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris



1834, Women of Algiers, oil on canvas, 180 x 229cm, Louvre


1837-38, Fanatics of Tangier, oil on canvas, 98 x 131cm, Minneapolis


 C1837, Self-Portrait, Oil on canvas, 65 x 54,5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris



1838, Frédéric Chopin, Oil on canvas, 45,7 x 37,5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris


 C1839, Jewish Wedding in Morocco, Oil on canvas, 105 x 140 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris



1845, The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage, oil on canvas, 384 x 343 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse


c1853, Christ on the Sea of Galilee, oil on canvas, 51  61cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art



  1. Christ on Galilee, oil on canvas, 60 x 73cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


1861. The lion hunt, oil on canvas, 76.5 x 98.5 cm, Art Institute of Chicago.


1862, Ovid among the Scythians, oil on canvas, 87.6 cm × 130.2 cm, National Gallery London


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