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Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix

French, 1798 - 1863

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A remarkably prolific artist, Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix created more than 850 paintings and 2000 watercolors and drawings in his lifetime. Considered the last "Old Master," he consciously placed himself in the painterly tradition of Veronese, Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt, yet he was also the driving force in the French Romantic Movement, a radical new approach to art developed in Paris in the early decades of the 1800s. Delacroix formed the link between the traditions of the past and the modern movements, ultimately having a profound influence upon the Impressionists, particularly Renoir and Cézanne, as well as such 20th-century masters as Picasso and Matisse. Cézanne said that Delacroix had "the greatest palette of France, and no one beneath our skies possessed to a greater extent the vibration of color. We all paint through him."

While he is perhaps most familiar to us through the grandly public, romantic creations of his youth, the artist described by the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire in 1845 as "the most original painter of ancient or modern times" was in fact a deeply self-reflective, intensely personal man in his mature years. Works thought by many to be either unfinished or spontaneous creations were in fact the product of painstaking preparation and reflect his carefully calibrated theories on color and technique. Particularly following the Revolution of 1848 in France, there is a building urgency and complexity to his work, matched at times by a nearly visionary relationship to nature and a profound search for spiritual reckoning. Indeed, the last fifteen years of Delacroix's life reveals a little understood and extremely potent aspect of this artist who, while long taken to be a pivotal figure in the history of painting, continues as a great, if seductive, mystery.

The Feeling for Nature: Landscape and Flowers

A dedicated student of natural phenomena who was captivated by gardens and the study of flowers, Delacroix turned more frequently to painting pure landscapes and devoted himself almost exclusively to a series of "flower portraits" in 1848 and 1849. In the environs of his house at Champrosay in the forest near Paris, or on the coast of Normandy, the artist recorded his visual impressions through rapid sketches in pencil, watercolor, or oils, often reworking these studies in the studio or completely repainting them from memory. He wrote: "This process of idealization happens almost without my realizing it whenever I make a tracing of a composition that comes out of my head. The second version is always corrected and brought closer to the ideal." In response to two of the flower pictures exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1849, one critic wrote: "Delacroix has caught the secrets of flowers and their casualness, subsequently translating them for us with that impulsive energy he is known for."

The Lesson of Morocco

On an expedition to Morocco in 1832, Delacroix filled a series of albums with sketches and descriptions of his observations. It was a visit that would have a profound effect on the light, color, and imagery of his painting for the rest of his life. A vivid testimony to the artist's love of North Africa and its hold on his imagination, these albums became the primary reference for Delacroix's later paintings on the subject, executed for the most part in the 1850s. Concerned less with the accuracy of details, Delacroix depended on his memory in order to convey the drama of the majestic scenes that impressed him. This sentiment is recorded in an entry from his Journal (October 17, 1853): "I didn't begin to do anything passable in my trip to Africa until the moment when I had sufficiently forgotten small details and so remembered the striking and poetic side of things for my pictures; up to that point I was pursued by the love of exactitude, which the majority of people mistake for truth."

Religious Aspiration, Literary Inspiration

Delacroix admired such eighteenth century French philosophers as Denis Diderot and Voltaire who argued that rational thought was superior to unquestioning faith. As he grew older, however, Delacroix's agnosticism was progressively supplanted by a conditional belief in the existence of God and life after death. This personal search for inner spirituality underlies Delacroix's prolific output of religious pictures late in his career. It is one of the great paradoxes of modern art history that Delacroix, a worldly Parisian who confessed skepticism of any organized religion, should be the greatest religious painter of the 19th century.

The artist also read voraciously, with interests that ranged from classical poetry to contemporary novels, recording his critical responses in his Journal. While the scope of his reading was vast, he restricted the number of authors he selected as sources for painting subjects to fewer than ten, a repertoire that remained more or less fixed throughout his career. Only the authors whose texts conjured images that were sufficiently strong, suggestive, and original had an impact on the painter's imagination. During the 1850s, Delacroix returned to the authors who had been so important to him early in his career: Dante, Shakespeare, Byron, Scott, Goethe, Tasso, and Ariosto.

Lions, Tigers, and Hunting Scenes

For the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in Paris, the French government allotted a large space in the fine arts building for a full retrospective of Delacroix's work, chosen by the artist himself. An equivalent space was given to Delacroix's arch rival, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, setting the scene for a direct comparison of the two artists' works. The government also budgeted substantial funds for a new commission from Delacroix, the subject to be decided by the artist.

For this ambitious project, Delacroix chose a lion hunt, a subject he treated often in his youth and would return to with special interest in the 1850s. His inspiration came from the frequent visits he made to the Paris zoo, often in the company of the animal sculptor Antoine Louis Barye. Delacroix's scrutiny of these great cats, at rest or in violent action, resulted-through observation blending imperceptibly with memory and imagination-in grand dramas on the canvas.

Greek Independence and the Romantic Imagination

Delacroix's late works are imbued with his recollections of the events and paintings of his youth. At the end of his life, the Greek War of Independence continued to resonate in his memory, inspiring paintings that revisited the dramatic conflict waged between 1821 and 1827 by Greek Nationalists attempting to break free from the Ottoman Empire, a cause that struck a responsive chord with idealistic French Romantics and ignited the youthful Delacroix's imagination.

The last years of his life were a time of profound reflection for Delacroix, steeped in nostalgia and swept by deep, erotically charged, emotions. Among the great admirers of Delacroix's talent was the American novelist Henry James, who in 1872 remarked that the painter's "imaginative impulse begins where that of most painters ends." Théophile Silvestre spoke to these same qualities in the final years of the artist's life: "Delacroix died, almost smiling...a painter of great genius, who had the sun in his head and storms in his heart, who for forty years played the entire keyboard of human emotion, and whose grandiose, terrible, and delicate brushes passed from saints to warriors, from warriors to lovers, from lovers to tigers and from tigers to flowers."

Quotations

"Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to find ways of expressing passion in the most visible manner."
- Baudelaire, 1863

"Delacroix's imagination! It has never feared to scale the difficult heights of religion . . . His imagination, glowing as a chapel ablaze with light, burns with every flame and every purple passion. All the sorrow there is in passion moves him. All the splendor there is in the Church illumines him."
- Baudelaire, 1863

"He was like the crater of a volcano artistically hidden by bouquets of flowers."
- Baudelaire, 1863

"How will M. Delacroix stand with Posterity? . . . Like Rembrandt he had a sense of intimacy and a profoundly magical quality, like Rubens and Lebrun a feeling for decoration and combination, like Veronese an enchanted sense of colour, etc.; but that he also had a quality all his own, a quality indefinable but itself defining the melancholy and the passion of his age-something quite new, which has made him an unique artist, without ancestry, without precedent, and probably without successor-a link so precious that it could in no wise be replaced; and that by destroying it-if such a thing were possible-a whole world of ideas and sensations would be destroyed, and too great a gap would be blasted in the chain of history."
- Baudelaire, 1855

"The things that are most real to me are the illusions which I create with my painting. Everything else is a quicksand."
- Delacroix, February 1824

"Precious realm of painting! That silent power that speaks at first only to the eyes and then seizes and captivates every faculty of the soul! Here is your real spirit; here is your own true beauty."
- Delacroix, May 1824

"There is no perfume like the smell of damp earth and trees! How penetrating is this strong scent of the forest, how quickly it brings back to me the pure and lovely memories of early childhood and the feelings that come from the depth of my soul! . . . How often has the sight of the green leaves and the scent of the woods roused such memories."
- Delacroix, Champrosay, June 1853

"I didn't begin to do anything passable in my trip to Africa until the moment when I had sufficiently forgotten small details and so remembered the striking and poetic side of things for my pictures; up to that point I was pursued by the love of exactitude, which the majority of people mistake for truth."
- Delacroix, October 1853

"I have been thinking of the freshness of memories and of their power to lend enchantment to the distant past."
- Delacroix, April 1854

"They are going to launch a large vessel called a clipper at noon today. Another of these American inventions to make people go faster and faster. When they have managed to get travellers comfortably seated inside a cannon so that they can be shot off like bullets in any given direction civilization will doubtless have taken a great step forward. We are making rapid strides towards that happy time when space will have been abolished; but they will never abolish boredom."
- Delacroix, August 1854

"For enjoyment to be perfect, one needs memory to complete it and unfortunately, we cannot both enjoy and remember a pleasure at the same time. That would be to add the ideal to the real. Memory isolates the delightful moment, or creates the necessary illusion."
- Delacroix, October 1856

"Painting, it's true, like the most exacting of mistresses, harasses and torments me in a hundred ways. For the last four months I have been getting up at dawn, and hurrying off to this enchanting work as though I were rushing to throw myself at the feet of a beloved mistress."
- Delacroix, Paris, January 1861

Delacroix: The Late Work, 1998

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