EXHIBITION REVIEW: Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art

By: Deborah Nash | Date 24.02.2016
The 19th century painter Eugène Delacroix is regarded as one of the leading lights of the French Romantic Movement. In the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, the curators address his influence on succeeding generations of artists.
Photo: The National Gallery, London
I once knew an elderly painter who owned a Delacroix and one day he invited me to his studio in Chelsea to view it. The pen and ink sketch was of a nude and I was less impressed by it then than by the pride and excitement with which its owner presented it to me. Looking back, I realize that this diminutive Delacroix had talismanic value that directly linked the painter to a master. Perhaps, too, he believed a trace of the master’s magic might flow into his own brushwork.

The impact of Eugène Delacroix’s writhing energetic lines and ripe sentient colour on a surprising range of artists is the underlying theme of the show at the National Gallery. There are 24 works by Delacroix here, but spotting them is sometimes like looking for a rare black rhino among the zebra on a safari.

Delacroix’s output over a lifetime was prodigious. When he died in 1863 he left behind a studio of hundreds of drawings, paintings and 55 sketchbooks that were sold off in a big sale the following year. This hoard became a painterly diaspora, some went to the Louvre but many were bought by dealers and subsequently dispersed around the world, entering private and public collections, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art that has part-organized this London exhibition.

Delacroix’s works were admired, studied and copied by Manet, Cezanne, Millet, Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse among others, most of whom are represented. In the same way, Delacroix was indebted to those who went before him, Michelangelo and Rubens, and his peer, Gericault. He referenced these painters, particularly their treatment of the figure and fleshy tones, in his own work.

‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ seems rather an odd jumble. A hang that favoured fewer canvases and sharper focus might have carried more conviction. One has the impression that the curators were too earnestly arguing their case by flooding the rooms with as many works by different modern artists as they could think of instead of pinpointing the older master’s contribution to their development.

The first room mixes portraits with mythological subjects, starting with Delacroix’s handsome self-portrait at 39 with twin notes of wildness and determination that contrasts marvelously with a full length painting of the neat and lean-as-a-horse-whip Louis-Auguste Schwitter; next to it hangs ‘Lord Ribblesdale’ (1902) by John Singer Sargent, depicted in a similarly suave and civilized manner. But evidence that one was inspired by the other needs to be more vigorously argued.

On the opposite wall smoulders a small intense oil ‘The Barque of Dante’. In it, the poet stands upright dressed in flame red cowl on a barque; he is steadied by Virgil, on the broiling waters of the river Styx as he looks back at the City of Dis flaring up against a smoke coiled sky; the livid muscular contorted bodies of the damned anchor the composition as they hopelessly contrive to haul themselves into the cradle of the boat.

This is Manet’s 1854 copy of a Delacroix composition (Cézanne also painted a version; both are a quarter of the size of the original). We do not have the Delacroix, unfortunately, with which to compare. His 1822 canvas remains in the Louvre. The work is significant, says the art historian Professor Lee Johnson, because Delacroix’s treatment of water drops on the bodies of the damned are divided into pure unmixed pigments, a technique later exploited by post impressionists such as Seurat and Signac. This was one point that could not be made without showing the original.

Among Delacroix’s most controversial pictures was ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’. It is a painting of generous dimensions that one can lose oneself in, but again it is not here. We have instead Delacroix’s small replica, made in 1846. The Louvre holds the larger earlier finished work of 1828 and also the study for it. The exhibition’s canvas is paired with Cézanne’s ‘The Eternal Feminine’ that turns the Sardanapalus subject matter on its head.

Delacroix’s picture is a re-imagining of a scene from a play by Byron in which the last king of the second Assyrian dynasty lies on the steeply raked diagonal slice of a crimson bed in a besieged palace, watching as his orders for the slaughter of his concubines, servants and animals are carried out by guards. A snake writhes and hisses on the sheets, a naked woman expires by the king’s feet while another looks directly into his eyes as a dagger is poised to plunge into her throat. The mix of sex and death is a tantalizing one; and the composition displays modern innovations in its cropping.
Cézanne’s jokey homage shares some obvious compositional and thematic features and includes a sketchy portrait of Delacroix at his easel, but profounder meanings of the work are not explored. ‘You can find us all in Delacroix’ is a quote by Cézanne that gives this room its title. Only trouble is, similar was said of Cézanne by Picasso: ‘Cézanne was the father of us all’. Quotes need to be supported.

A more successful display is ‘living antiquity’ in the second room. It is here too that one sees some key Delacroix. A six-month stay in Morocco in 1832 was to furnish the painter with exotic themes for the rest of his life. In ‘Lion Hunt’ (1861) the brutal tussle between a swirling vortex of lions with flaming manes, gaping jaws and crinkled maws, rippling horses and raised spears erupts in a landscape that rears and rolls as part of the action; in ‘Combat of the Giaour and Hassan’ (1853) two steeds are knotted in embrace as their riders pitch in for the kill; while in ‘Women of Algiers in their Apartment’ (1847-9) we glimpse past a curtain into the hermetic dusky-celled intimacy of women languidly dreaming by a hookah pipe.

Renoir and Chassériau followed the lead in exotic subject matter rendered in expressive brushwork and gorgeous colours but we find it too in the canvases of Matisse who also trod the trail to North Africa, while Gauguin sought his exotica in Tahiti after a failed attempt in the south of France with Van Gogh.

I emerged from this exhibition having seen some lovely things, but unconvinced by the argument. The last line in Delacroix’s journal was ‘the first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.’ And that indeed was what I was left with.


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