Inspired by the great writers, notably Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tasso, and Walter Scott, and with the use of expressive brushstrokes and experimentations with the optical effects, Eugène Delacroix painted cruel and exceptionally brutal episodes of ancient history recently retold by Lord Byron. This “master of color” announced the work of Impressionists and his passion for exotic was the main inspiration for the artists of the Symbolist movement. As the greatest representative of the Romanticism in art, he rejected the Neoclassical perfectionism, searching for the models in the expression of Rubens and artists of Venetian Renaissance. Delacroix chose to move away from the classical Greek and Roman ideals, finding his creative satisfaction in the Oriental visual language. Of crucial importance for both, his work and further development of art were his commitment to color effects instead of modeled form and clear outlines of his predecessors. His innovative approach, although offensive for the contemporary critics, earned the admiration and recognition of others, making him enjoyed a long and successful career.
Delacroix was born in 1798 at Charlenton-Saint-Maurice near Paris, as the fourth son of Charles Delacroix, a minister of foreign affairs who was on a mission to Holland at the time of his birth, and of Victorie Oeben who came from a family of artists and craftsmen. They both died early, leaving the young Delacroix with his older sister Henriette who was married to a former ambassador to Turkey. He was also under the protection of Talleyrand, a family friend who is considered to be his actual father. That has never been proved but the artist had significant resemblance in appearance and character with him. At the age of 17, he started his education at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand and the Lycee Pierre Corneille in Rouen and soon won awards for drawing. He took painting lessons from Pierre Guerin who has taught him in a classical manner of Jacques-Louis David which had little effect on Delacroix. More important for his artistic development were his visits to Louvre, where he met Richard Parkes Bonington and Raymond Soulier who have introduced him to the watercolor painting and British tradition of colorism, initiating his interest in literary sources, such as Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott. On the early beginnings of his style development, he experimented from the observing Michelangelo and Rubens, merging it with his classical training. Under the impression of Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and his painting The Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix created his first major artwork, The Barque of Dante, that was accepted by the Salon in 1822. The same sensation and acceptance of the audience made his Massacre at Chios, two years later. Painted in a dark tone representing dying Greek civilians cruelly killed by the Turks, this painting marked Delacroix as a prime figure of the new Romantic style. The government purchased the work, although some critics have considered as controversial that kind of presenting suffering. He used this money to visit London where he expanded his fascination for English literature and art which affected the later change of freer interpretation of sky changes and distant landscapes. With his painting Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, the artist one more time showed his support to the Greeks in their battle for the independence from the Turks. Inspired by the situation when the Turkish army captured Missolonghi in 1825, he painted a woman in a traditional costume with half-raised arms in the moment before the horrible event when the people decided to destroy their town and kill themselves rather than surrender to the Turks.
The trip to England encouraged Delacroix to paint his only full-length portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter. During this period, he started to experiment with the new techniques and to produce romantic works with the various themes that would follow him for the next thirty years. After all his relatively small format pieces, Delacroix created Death of Sardanapalus, exhibited at the Salon in 1827. This monumental painting of the death of the Assyrian king, with its bright colors of exotic costumes, was found its source in the play by Byron. Besides its shocking dimensions (154 × 195 inches), the foreground depiction of the struggle of the nude women whose throat is about to be cut was described as terrible fantasy involving death and lust. During the following years, the artist often created studies of lions and tigers, nudes, battles and oriental scenes. In 1830, inspired by the July revolution against Charles X, Delacroix painted his iconic work Liberty Leading the People where Parisians march forward under the flag, a symbol of liberty, equality and fraternity. Dealing with the modern subject on a more restrained way, his technique clearly reflects the difference between the Romanticism and Classical style. His Liberty is both allegorical goddess and the woman of the people, surrounded by fighters from the various social classes. For the first time, public and critics were united in praise of the artist who was awarded the Legion of Honor. The French government purchased the painting with the aim of displaying it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg to celebrate the king, but after the Rebellion in 1832, it was returned to the artist. The painting was exhibited again at the Salon of 1855 and nineteen years later entered the permanent collection of Louvre.
In 1832, after the French conquered Algeria, Delacroix visited Spain and North Africa, as a member of a diplomatic mission. Fascinated with the everything he saw, the artist filled seven large sketchbooks and created an album of eighteen watercolors with the studies of different places and Arab people. His interest in Orientalism created a special chapter in his career, leaving the mark on his whole future oeuvre. Although he had an intense relationship with the orient long before he set off for Morocco - the trace of it is visible through all his paintings, after being directly included in those people’s everyday lives, his imagination became fully occupied with new surroundings. He had the opportunity to attend a Jewish wedding which he drew in one of his sketchbooks, complete with a wealth of detailed note which helped him to, nine years later, paint A Jewish Wedding in Morocco, accepted by the Salon. This time, the critic complained that close look to the painting made the image become muddled and vague and that the eye is “unpleasantly distracted” by brush strokes in pink, yellow, and blue which “seemed to go in every direction”. As it happened, this negative review was exactly the description of the artist’s intentions, for he was trying to introduce a new relation between the painting and its subject.
When the French ambassador was received in the holy city by the Sultan of Morocco, Delacroix painted a portrait of the sultan and his favorite, Muchtar, surrounded by the king’s guards. When it was exhibited at the 1845 Salon, it was noted that the artist had recorded the exact scene, but truth was that he changed it a good deal, emphasizing the crowds at the city gate. Still, the history was re-invented not through a desire to falsify, but through a need to create a commemoration that would have an artistic rather than simply factual integrity. He would produce two smaller versions of this portrait in 1856 and 1862. On his way back to France, Delacroix stopped over in Algiers for three days where he conceived canvas entitled The Women of Algiers (1834), widely considered as one of his masterpieces. There is no solid evidence, but it is assumed that Arab man named Reis had allowed him to see his wives. The details of their clothing were carefully noted on his watercolor sketches: pearl-blue – black chalk – blue silk – green and white stripped – blue and pink. Back in Paris, he started on several preparatory studies, among them the great pastel Algerian Women Seated. On the final painting, his characters are constructed around dynamic balance between a classical composition, probably inspired by the Venetian masters he so much admired, and a dramatic use of vibrant colors that created a sensual and highly charged atmosphere. Delacroix's technical solutions and stylistic means that seemed simpler but actually are more complex than in his earlier works announced the beginning of his mature style, quieter but grander and powerful, more monumental but less expressive.
It is quite clear that his visit to Morocco helped him to develop a new approach to his art. He was convinced that people he saw there provided a visual equivalent to the ancient Greeks and Romans: “Romans and Greeks are here, outside my door… I have met them.” After he returned to France, Orient as a subject became second nature to Delacroix. He would create no less than eighty Orientalist paintings, of which fifteen depict imaginary hunting scenes. These bear out in particular his passion for horses that were the main protagonists on numerous works. He also loved themes of festivals, theater, and music. The fact is, nothing in Algiers and Morocco seems to have left Delacroix indifferent and anything could set off extraordinary pictorial digressions. Ecstatics of Tangiers (1857), View of Tangiers (1858) or even Arabs Playing Chess (1848) in which he invested the simple street scene with a rare, classical dignity.
During his latter part of his life and career, his work showed more concern with compositional structure and balance, reflected in carrying out of architectural decorations. From 1833, king Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III commissioned him to decorate several public buildings in Paris. For the next ten years, he worked at Salon du Roi in the Palais Bourbon and Palais Bourbon’s library where he covered parts of domes and pendentives with scenes celebrating arts and sciences, beginning with the image of Orpheus’ gift of civilization to mankind and ending with Attila’s destruction of Italy. At the same time, he painted the library of the Senate in the Luxembourg Palace. In the central dome, the artist placed the symbolic scene of the encounter of the classical pagan with the modern Christian culture. There followed the decoration of Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, Salon de la Paix of the Hotel de Ville of Paris and the frescoes at Chapelle des Anges at the Church of St Sulpice in Paris. Delacroix was the only painter of his time who had an opportunity to create this kind of monumental pieces and to triumph in public spaces. It also provided him the chance to get close to the masters he admired, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens. His value rested on his mastery of color that provided both emotional power and formal structure for his murals and frescoes.
In 1855, The Universal Exposition exhibited thirty-six of his paintings along with Ingres’, as a tribute to two most important living artists. Frequently ill suffering from bronchial infections, besides his Parisian home, the artist spent more and more time in his cottage in Champrosay. Eugène Delacroix died on August 13, 1863, in Paris and was buried in Piere Lachaise Cemetery. He never got tired of the subjects he took back from Maghreb and just a few months before his death, he painted the Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains. In 1862 he participated in the founding of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. After his death, the society organized a retrospective exhibition of his 248 paintings and lithographs. In total, 9140 works were attributed to the artist, including 853 paintings, 1525 pastels and watercolors, 6629 drawings, 109 lithographs, and over 60 sketchbooks. Delacroix’s paintings permanently changed the art world, directly affecting and deeply influencing Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. He is regarded as one of the most significant French Romantic painters who shaped the future of painting.
Featured image: Eugene Delacroix's portrait (detail), by Félix Nadar