Delacroixby Jason Rosenfeld
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
SEPTEMBER 17, 2018 – JANUARY 6, 2019
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is giving the French Romantic Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) the full historical treatment accorded an old master: generously sized, darkened galleries; deep, jewel-tone walls; and over 150 spot lit works. It is a largely chronological survey of his whole career, in multiple media, the first of its kind in the United States and the most extensive since an exhibition of late work opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1998. Initially seen as an even larger behemoth at the Louvre, Delacroix includes as much of his work that the French national and regional museums would lend, and offers a coherent presentation of the many strands of his practice. It opens with a vista through the first gallery into the second, culminating in a Self-Portrait in a Green Vest, ca. 1837. Here is the card-carrying Romantic: direct gaze, serious expression, tousled hair, brushily painted in earth tones with a flash of emerald on his vest. In front of it is a vitrine containing early drawings and the journal that he kept from 1822 to 1824, an indispensible resource for understanding the artist’s state of mind in the formative years of his ascent to the position of preeminent French Romantic painter after the death of the more gifted Théodore Géricault.
At left in the first gallery is the grandiose (and recently conserved) Christ in the Garden of Olives (The Agony in the Garden) (1824–26) from the Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris, which blends the monumental bodies of the French revolutionary period with a pseudo-Baroque treatment of lighting and tenebrism. On the right wall is Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), with a monumental, bare-chested, and marmoreal female personification of Greece, pleading for help from Western European powers, while behind her towers a menacing Ottoman soldier, symbol of her subjugation and defeat. Religious imagery and contemporary history in the form of allegory: these formed the repertoire of professional artists of the post-revolutionary period.
While the early rooms, pivoting on the great Self-Portrait, present the public face of the young artist, a gallery of studies tellingly reveals his thought processes. Alongside copies after Rubens and Veronese, there is a wall of female nudes, an early obsession of Delacroix’s. Louvre curators Sébastian Allard and Côme Fabre, who organized the exhibition in Paris, point out in the lead catalogue essay that, in his diary, Delacroix frequently noted the name or nickname of his model, what picture he was working on, how much he paid her, and if he had sex with her (if so, how many times) using the vulgar Italian term chiavatura, literally “nailing.” Allard and Fabre inform the reader that Delacroix “needed to possess his models in order to paint them,” a line that could have been written in the 1950s, but can hardly pass unnoted today. However, primary sources reveal that the artist had a fraught relationship with sex—he feared he was impotent and sought medical treatment; he agonized over whether the models loved him. The nudes of this period are likewise awkward and crass: heads sit unwieldily on bodies, torsos do not add up. This is the first sign that something was amiss in Delacroix’s pictorial world. In Paris his great rival was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the inheritor of Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical line, and an artist whose picture surfaces (smooth as porcelain), and whose drawing (impeccable and sensuous), were anathema to Delacroix, who followed the precedent of Antoine Jean Gros, and preferred a more energetic facture and nonclassical layout. Ingres also dealt with the female nude, likewise stretching, torquing, and deforming flesh. Both men committed painterly violations of female forms, but Ingres’s distortions made pictorial sense.
By contrast, Delacroix struggled. Consequently, I struggle to get his art, to get a rush from it commensurate with that experienced by his advocates. Subsequent galleries reveal the broadness of his literary inclinations with subjects—many more than a little obscure—drawn from medieval history, Byron, Goethe, and Shakespeare. His taste was impacted by a trip to England in 1825, and he was an early devotee of these writers. But after the late 1820s, his apolitical art tried to straddle a middle way between tradition and experimentation in the topsy-turvy France of the Bourbon Restoration, July Monarchy, Second Republic, and Second Empire. And his works inadvertently mirror this historical chaos. There is hardly a picture without a curious passage or two—an arm akimbo, a horse’s head that is laughably small, glances that miss intended targets by a wide margin. Inveighing against academic orthodoxy, Delacroix claimed that remove and imperfection were marks of creative license. “Never seek an empty perfection. Some faults, some things which the vulgar call faults, often give vitality to a work,” he wrote in his mid-twenties. Delacroix’s dissident view long ago became Modernist orthodoxy: we are accustomed to celebrating willful faults in art as markers of innovation. Yet sometimes art is just clumsy. These galleries feature picture after picture that today look merely dispiriting–drab in tonality, convoluted in their narratives, lacking emotion and human connection.
Delacroix could be an artist of considerable painterly skill, and he was certainly onto something with his interwoven areas of seeming chaos in the midst of his canvases, but his compositions are often bombastic and incoherent. Though dusty old art-historical textbooks found him useful as a staging post between David and Courbet, in a neatly linear (and now untenable) narrative, his shortcomings reveal when that narrative is contested. I find his work unmemorable. To be sure, there are passages of fine painting, and “color movement” of a high order, but despite his neo-Baroque palette and brushwork, Delacroix is no Rubens. His style hardly changed over four decades: en masse, the pictures are monotonous.
The Metropolitan’s display suffers from the same two unavoidable deficiencies that plagued its Gustave Courbet exhibition in 2008: many pictures were made with poor materials and bear darkened varnishes that have diminished their appearance; and most of the large and best-known works from French collections could not travel. Delacroix does include Missolonghi, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), Medea About to Kill Her Children (1838), The Shipwreck of Don Juan (1840), and a work that now seems a high point in his oeuvre, the Met’s own The Natchez (1823–24 and 1835). But it is missing The Barque of Dante (1822), Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824), the full-size Death of Sardanapalus (1826–27), Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1841), by necessity all the mural projects in Paris that consumed years of his later maturity, and, most regrettably, Liberty Leading the People (1830). This last—his most successful piece of design, his greatest translation of Théodore Géricault’s pulse-pounding Raft of the Medusa (1819) into incisive form for a similarly charged historical moment—is a picture that has nonetheless visited the Metropolitan before, in the great French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution show in 1975. But even the massive, major works from the Louvre that are missing could not modify the greater impression of the artist. The Delacroix we see, the Delacroix presented here at the Metropolitan, is the only one there is. As T. J. Clark has written, Delacroix’s art is a “strange amalgam—of reaction and revolution.” He never quite got it whole.
Why do these paintings seem so off? Delacroix, who preached experience blent with the imagination, was astounded by the fundamentally realist British Pre-Raphaelites when he saw their work at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. In John Everett Millais, especially, he saw truth and color, excellent drawing, and persuasively emotional human stories. The work moved him. But it was too late for the grand master, then in his late fifties, to change, and he never evolved a new technique powerful enough to vanquish the school of David with a radical, non-linear, painterly aesthetic. Delacroix wrote of varying the amount of foreshortening to make works that were more interesting. But in the vast Battle of Nancy and the Death of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, January 5, 1477 (1830), the small-headed horses are merely badly drawn, distracting from the overall effect. Delacroix claimed that matter should predominate over form in painting. But formlessness is no virtue if it results in pictures that are uneven and illegible.
For all the failings of each individual work, there is no doubt that his approach to painting bore fruit in later art: his strivings to produce vigorous surfaces replete with what he called “firm yet melting impasto,” his experiments with complementary colors laid in regular strokes, and his elevation of genre subjects to monumental scale (as in Women of Algiers). Baudelaire praised him to the moon, and he became the founding patriarch of a familiar French lineage: Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Matisse, who all must have seen something different from what we see today. And yet there was an artist, Delacroix’s contemporary, unmentioned in the catalogue, who succeeded in producing such a fusion of matter and form, with truly astonishing color that retains its brilliance and freshness, with firm yet melting impasto, with radical overall compositions, with a broad sense of history and deep feeling for literature, human conflict, and passions. That artist was in London, and his name was J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). After years of a myopic story of Modernism that continues to privilege the murky, mirthless, half-Modernity of Delacroix—leaving Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Adolph Menzel, and other non-French artists out of the tale—we still need a new and more complex history of nineteenth-century art.
Nonetheless, there is one great room here, alone worth multiple visits to the show. That is the fourth gallery, the one with the cats. This is no trifle—cats defeated many great artists, including Dürer, Blake, and Overbeck. But Delacroix’s are supreme, and if the grand Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother (1830) suffers some from the artist’s characteristic compositional awkwardness, it is redeemed by the consummate depiction of the mother tiger in the foreground and hangs together as a picture. Painted the same year as Liberty Leading the People, it bears a similar commitment to techniques melded with imposing intensity. The exhibition proper closes with a massive fragment of a partially destroyed picture, the Lion Hunt of 1855. It is the usual mish-mosh of bodies with misaligned heads and appendages, relieved by deftly distributed color. But oh, the cats. Bristling musculature and rippling tawny fur, deployed claws and gnashing teeth. It is not new in concept—as ever with Delacroix, Rubens got there first—but few artists of the period could match this level of physical presence in their work.
It is perhaps time to reconsider Delacroix’s achievement, to acknowledge his limitations. He was imaginative. He talked a good game in his journals. He was novel in his use of color and in accessing contemporary literature. He did not shy away from the large-scale canvases of the French tradition. But his project was a failure. His pictures are replete with tumult but lack human spirit. His women are ciphers for male violence and desire, and nothing more. Stick with the cats.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail.