Home / Art & Culture / At the Met Museum, the Grand Enigmas of Delacroix

At the Met Museum, the Grand Enigmas of Delacroix

The achievement of the French painter Eugène Delacroix — the Romantic paragon of 19th-century French art — is like a huge puzzle whose pieces don’t easily fit together. But at least we finally have a chance to try to make them cohere.

The first full-dress retrospective in North America devoted to this complex, enigmatic, foundational figure, titled simply “Delacroix,” opens on Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized with the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it appeared in fuller form this year, the Met show presents nearly 150 paintings, prints and drawings in a dozen large galleries whose arrangements sometimes have the clarity of individual exhibitions. Some of his biggest, most famous paintings are staying home, but enough prized Delacroixs from the Louvre, other French museums and elsewhere — including the hypnotic “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” and the grim “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” — are on hand to account for an astounding career.

As Picasso told the painter Françoise Gilot: “That bastard. He’s really good.”

And yet this precocious prophet of the modern age does not conform to our ideas of unalloyed progress. While he opened the door to Modern painting as a process, he kept it tightly closed to modern life.

The show has been assembled by Asher Miller, associate curator of the Met’s department of European paintings, with Sébastien Allard, the director of the Louvre’s department of paintings, and Côme Fabre, its curator. Their selections give us, in largely chronological order, Delacroix the talented student; the portraitist of his loved ones and of big cats; the illustrator; the misogynist bachelor and Orientalist; the frequent star of the Paris Salon; and the painter of religious commissions and of slightly naughty (but highly salable) troubadour paintings.

Delacroix also rendered possibly the most convincing newborn in Western painting (in “The Natchez,” with its idealized Native American parents). He seems to have been an incessant draftsman, doodling in the margins of print proofs, always with much on his mind. In one of the show’s most stupendous drawings, “Studies of Tigers and Men in 16th-Century Costumes,” Delacroix repeatedly draws, in brown ink and watercolor, both the animal at rest and its regal head. But in the upper corner, several Dutch burghers are lightly sketched in graphite, as if thoughts of Rembrandt and Hals had suddenly intruded.

There are also nearly 120 more drawings to be seen in the exhibition “Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugene Delacroix,” in nearby galleries. The Cohen works suggest that Delacroix’s horses on paper are superior to his overly stylized steeds on canvas. This collection also includes a wonderful study for the immense “Christ in the Garden of Olives (The Agony in the Garden)” of 1824-26, a gorgeous, packed, newly cleaned vision of Christ, in a splendid orange wrap, pushing away the angels as soldiers draw close to arrest him.

This work was Delacroix’s first religious commission, introduced in the Salon of 1827, and it opens the retrospective, hanging beside its Salon alum “Mortally Wounded Brigand Quenches His Thirst.” A small, superbly unified work, it shows its handsome protagonist crouched over a stream, drinking water stained with his own blood. It portends Delacroix’s unusual control of skin tones to add drama; death is on the man’s face, but his hands are slightly more robust.

By this time, Delacroix had already asserted his rejection of the neo-Classical credo of firm outlines, polished paint handling and perspectival logic. His embrace of color, freewheeling brushwork, frequent distortions of space and intensifications of motion had established him as a leader of French Romantic painting when he made his debut at 24 in the Salon of 1822. His ideas about the physicality of painting, mostly gleaned from studying the work of Rubens, Veronese and others at the Louvre, opened the medium to the modern era.

“You can find all of us … in Delacroix,” Cézanne said. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism gestate in his art. Stare at “Apollo Slays the Python, sketch,” a study for the ceiling of the Louvre’s Gallery of Apollo, commissioned in 1850, and a van Gogh sunflower may stare back. The oil sketches here outshine finished versions that hang nearby, especially the more emotionally compelling study “Medea About to Kill Her Children, sketch.” Some sketches are startlingly prescient. The robust red and orange blurs of “The Lion Hunt,” based on Rubens, in the show’s final gallery, are as improvisatory as a de Kooning.

The enigma of Delacroix has several aspects. First, how was he able to do so many different things, so early, and for so long? Born into privilege in 1798, Delacroix expected great things of himself and was almost desperate for fame. Becoming an impoverished orphan at 16 seems to have spurred his ambition and industriousness, while also creating a need for income (although the great diplomat Talleyrand, sometimes rumored to be Delacroix’s real father, was a frequent protector). Even in his 20s, opportunities to illustrate books and undertake public commissions began to pile up.

Delacroix realized that the quicker way to fame was through the Paris Salon and public opinion, rather than the Prix de Rome and a period of study in that city. So year after year, almost to the end of his life, he submitted works to the Salon, often large statement paintings that garnered controversy and attention. Many were purchased by the French state, meaning that Delacroix’s most famous efforts are concentrated in the Louvre and rarely travel. These include “The Barque of Dante” (his first Salon submission) and the enormous “Death of Sardanapalus,” that vertiginous tilt of mayhem and pink whose violence caused an outcry. It shows the hedonistic Sardanapalus, a fictional Assyrian king facing defeat, sitting indolently on an immense divan of rosy silk while all around, on his order, his concubines, eunuchs and horses are being put to death.

Luckily, this show includes Delacroix’s large sketch for “Sardanapalus,” and a small replica of that painting, hanging side by side. In each, I suggest starting with the terrified horse about to be stabbed in the lower left corner and working your way into and up this centrifugal composition. The greatest, most interesting violence may be the upheaval and flattening of pictorial space.

Yet another challenge is that Delacroix does not fit smoothly into the proto-Modern mold. If he laid the groundwork for Modern painting, he seemed studiously to avoid scenes of modern life, especially local ones. He had a bad case of the anywhere-but-here attitude endemic in some Romantic artists and preferred to draw from history and classical genres rather than current events. In contrast, his mentor, Théodore Géricault, took up the banner for Romanticism at the 1819 Paris Salon with his immense “Raft of the Medusa,” which depicted the gruesome aftermath of an 1816 shipwreck. (Delacroix posed for one of the dead bodies.)

Except for “July 28, 1830: Liberty Leading the People” — Delacroix’s homage to the July Revolution (not in this show) — you’d never know that he lived through three regime changes, from Napoleon’s abdication, to the Bourbon Restoration that the July Revolution brought down, to the 1848 overthrow of Louis-Philippe.

Delacroix preferred subjects from the Bible, Shakespeare, Walter Scott and especially the poems and tales of Byron, as well as scenes from exotic cultures made accessible by French colonialism. In fact, the only contemporary life that Delacroix depicted with regularity was that found in Morocco and Algeria, where he traveled in 1832.

He went as part of a diplomatic mission, making sketches and gathering memories that fed his art for the rest of his life. It is thought that he gained fleeting access to a harem, seen here in “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” which shows three luxuriously dressed subjects lounging on lavish carpets and pillows. Criticisms that this and similar works amplify the male gaze with colonialist power dynamics are well deserved, but the scale and self-containment of these women are welcome in a show where so many are presented for display, abducted or killed.

“The first merit of painting is to be a feast for the eye,” Delacroix wrote in his last journal entry, in June 1863. It’s intriguing to think of Delacroix’s love of narrative and history as an avoidance tactic, driven by a need to shut out the tumult of his time for the sake of his art. But this can give some of his work a remote, fusty feeling, as if he had lived entirely in his head and his books.

The encompassing exhibition abandons this mood in its final three galleries, as we see Delacroix late in life continue to push his art. A modest space with small religious paintings and sketches from the 1840s and ’50s raises the emotional pitch with amazing Lamentations and Pietas, and a Rubenesque sketch for a Crucifix.

In the next gallery, religious themes are set against the vastness of nature — sea or forest. Three tiny unpopulated landscapes show a new liveliness of paint and attention to reality. And, finally, the show’s apotheosis: three dazzling “Lion Hunt” paintings. Delacroix, the masterly translator of Rubens, and still learning as he neared 60, comes roaring back with fireworks in piled-up battles of men and beasts, fur and blood, violent reds and oranges.

The culmination of his many passions, and of this ravishing show, these works give new truth to the words of van Gogh, an ardent admirer, that in Delacroix, “The mood of colors and tone was at one with meaning.” The materiality of paint is both celebrated and transcended.

Delacroix
Sept. 17 through Jan. 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
“Devotion to Drawing” is at the Met through Nov. 12.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C18 of the New York edition with the headline: Visions of a Prophet Of the Modern Age, Immersed in the Past. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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