A Romantic of Endless Industry
THE "proud and solitary" Romantic, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), was a gifted, complex man of impressive intellectual caliber. When the artist was 24, he began a journal which affords posterity with a provocative record of his times, as well as a self-portrait more revealing than anything he would paint of himself. The indiscretion and frankness of diaries are what makes them valuable and singular; here we find Delacroix's views on art, music, literature, mankind, both general and particular. To him we owe written portraits of Chopin, whom he valued as a dear friend, and of Berlioz, who infuriated him. Delacroix was a combination of the liberal and the conservative, snobbish and caustic toward the bourgeoisie, writing: "With the majority of men, the intelligence is a field that lies fallow for almost all their lives." Still, he was known for his punctilious manners. His journal and letters are so well penned that many have thought him an even better writer than artist. Certainly through these writings we can look out on the emerging world of events and trends, while being charmed by such snatches as "F ound two beautiful hawk's feathers." Delacroix was born in the Val de Marne, France, but went as a small child to Paris. It was soon realized that he would be an artist, and at the capital he was able to study with the great masters of the day and used to copy the art works in the Louvre. At the outset of his career, his training led him to follow the classical mode, accepting the precepts of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David. But when he became aware of the new world of Romanticism developing around him, with its vivid, individual concepts and dramatic visions, he realized that this movement was in accord with his own imagination and feeling, so that he at once identified himself with it. When his work became known, he was called the leader of the Romantics, the Victo r Hugo of painting. The same year in which Delacroix began his journal, his first great painting, "Le Barque de Dante," was hung in the Salon in Paris, and everywhere acclaimed. The dramatic story of the poet on the boat crossing the river Styx was handled with such boldness, and the colors were so lavish that Paris was stirred. The artist loved colors, greatly influenced by Rubens, Titian, and Veronese. After this, other splendid canvases came from his brush, most of them full of "emotional turbulence." He was fired in the choice of his themes by his wide reading - Byron, Shakespeare, and Scott were among his favorites. Another important facet of Delacroix's genius came to light nearly 10 years later, when he became one of the foremost of the Orientalist painters. In 1832, he suddenly had the opportunity to visit North Africa in the suite of the Comte de Mornay, who was going as special envoy to the sultan of Morocco from the King of France. Though the journey did not last more than five months, it illuminated his perceptions and imagination and was to be a turning point in his life. It came at just the right moment for him - his technique was established, his name known. Europe had been made keenly aware of the wonders of the Near East through the work of those artists who had accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign, and now painters were flocking to the region. In 1835, the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre was already complaining about the number of painters in Cairo, declaring that they had ruined the city for him. It was the great hour of the Orientalists: Jean-Leon Gme, Theodore Frere, Ludwig Deutsch, Edward Lear, David Roberts, William Holman Hunt. IN the few months in Africa, Delacroix made few paintings, but filled his sketchbooks with drawings which would serve him for the rest of his life. The colors of his new surroundings astonished him - an intense light illuminated them. He was enthralled by the hues of the desert, the horses (he was already an ardent horse painter), the walls and gates of the Moorish cities, and the people themselves. It seemed to him that here was to be found the "beauty of antiquity," the true classical image, as he looked upon the Moroccans with their flowing robes and their calm, majestic bearing. After the tight, constraining clothes Europeans wore, this freedom of dress was wonderfully pleasing and pictorial. Delacroix's horse pictures, and those of tigers and lions, were very often not drawn from his time in Morocco, but from studies made at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. A famous work of two horses fighting was actually something he saw in a stable. His journal contains endless notes on his work, noting meticulously, for instance, the exact way a shadow falls from a stirrup across a horse's flank. It was always his conviction that feeling and character must take precedence over a too literal representatio n of anatomy. "I have no love for reasonable painting," he said, "The first merit of a picture is to be a feast for the eye." When Delacroix was back in France, he received commissions from the state to paint large murals for important public buildings like the Palais Bourbon; this sort of work continued for the rest of his career, making him financially stable and socially courted. The critics, however, were unkind to him. He was not accepted as a member of the Academy of Fine Arts until 1859, his applications having been turned down seven times. Still, he was a man of endless industry, and the assembly of oils, watercolors, l ithographs, prints, and sketches which he left to be auctioned after his death astonished the bidders. A Delacroix exhibition that recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York included the illustrations shown on this page. The portrait of the poet Mathuri Regnier (1573-1613) was done as one of Delacroix's illustrations of famous men for "La Plutarque Francais" (the French translation of "Plutarch's Lives"), which appeared about the middle of the 19th century; it is a good example of his proficiency in this respect, and how effectively engravings were made from his originals. "The Wife of Abraham Benchimol and One of Their Daughters" is a sweet and evocative portrait, delicately handled in a domestic setting. Benchimol was the Jewish interpreter for the French delegation to Morocco. A careful, gentle work, it is not consciously "romantic," but wholly pleasing. It is another example of the painter's versatility - he could range from huge murals of allegorical scenes, to fighting horses, to such human and simple scenes as these.