Eugène Delacroix is one of the most difficult of the “great artists” to appreciate today. There is, or should be, no question about his being great. His draftsmanship can be exquisite, and his sense of colour and form is unparalleled. His great intelligence shines through in his small sketches and his drawings as much as it does in his finished works. His significance for the history of art is testified by the colossal influence he exerted on subsequent painters, from Manet and Cézanne to Picasso and Matisse.
But there are also so many things about Delacroix’s art that plenty of people today find off-putting, even repulsive. There is the sheer size of his best-known pictures, their grandiosity, their lack of a human scale: they are too big, too intense, too overwrought. They seem to be trying too hard to invoke an emotionally engaged response. It is almost as if Delacroix thinks it should be possible to evoke sympathy and pathos simply by increasing size. But the vastness of his canvases can have the opposite effect, leaving the viewer cold and unable to “connect” to the images which he presents.
There is also the cruel and brutal violence that Delacroix can seem far too fond of depicting. This cultivated and civilised man, who counted Stendhal, Chopin, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, and Prosper Mérimée among his friends, and who was devoted to the music of Mozart, Rossini and Beethoven, also seems to have been in love with blood. Many of his paintings involve the graphic depiction of massacres and murders.
One might think that would not be a problem for generations raised on American movies, or even just on watching the nightly news, which frequently broadcasts violence more extreme than anything Delacroix paints — but somehow it is. Perhaps it is because we do not expect high art to depict gratuitous violence that Delacroix’s paintings of the spilling of blood and guts seem, at a minimum, “inappropriate”.
The Massacre at Chios, Delacroix’s depiction of Greeks being murdered or enslaved by Turks, shocked its audience when it was first shown at the Paris Salon in 1824, and it shocks us now. The images are certainly disturbing: a baby trying to suckle on its dead mother’s hacked breast, a man bleeding to death, and an old woman awaiting decapitation by a Turk on a horse.
“The Massacre at Chios”, 1824 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle / Adrien Didierjean
Then there is Delacroix’s sexism: he seems to find it hard to depict a woman with all her clothes on. Women are characteristically passive victims in his paintings: he paints Othello moving towards Desdemona in order to murder her; he creates several pictures of Andromeda, naked and chained to a rock, awaiting rescue by Perseus; he depicts a young Indian woman (she is half-naked) being eaten by a tiger. He devotes whole canvases to scenes he describes as A young woman being kidnapped on the Mediterranean coast by African pirates, and to Rebecca being kidnapped by the Templars. These last two young ladies manage to keep their clothes on. But they struggle uselessly against the men who seize hold of them: they are doomed to be victims of male power. And Delacroix’s art seems not to condemn it, but to celebrate it and endorse it.
The most obvious feature of Delacroix’s huge Death of Sardanapalus is not Sardanapalus’s death — he is very much alive, watching the orgy of violence he has commanded to take place around him — but the murder of his concubines (they are of course naked) by his male bodyguards (they are mostly clothed). When Delacroix wanted to personify Liberty leading the people of Paris to use violent street protest to produce revolution, he came up with — what else? — a bare-breasted woman. Less appropriate attire for charging through a barricade would be hard to imagine. Even Delacroix’s religious pictures can involve some female nudity: one his crucifixions, for instance, has Mary Magdalen displaying her bare bosoms at the foot of the cross.
“The Death of Sardanapalus”, 1827-1828, by Eugène Delacroix © Musée du Louvre, Paris. dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Angèle Dequier
Delacroix’s views on women do not, to put it mildly, conform to contemporary ideas of sexual equality. Kenneth Clark claimed that reading Delacroix’s journals made it clear that he thought the best place for women was in a harem. That may be putting it too strongly, but it is certainly true that Delacroix’s primary response to women was aesthetic. He appreciated women first and foremost for their physical beauty. That was not all he appreciated about them: he was close friends with George Sand, and several of his ex-lovers became his long-standing friends. But his response to a woman’s physical charms usually seems to have dominated everything else.
He never married or had children. “My mistress is my art,” he said — and it was true. He loved painting and the act of creation far more than he loved any woman, or indeed any other person. Working on producing art thrilled him, cheered him and consoled him in a way that nothing else did. “I go to my work,” he wrote, “as others run to their mistress, and when I leave it, I re-collect in my solitude a charming memory, which doesn’t resemble the agonised pleasure of lovers at all.”
It was not as if he found painting easy: he did not. It presented him with “interminable, appalling difficulties”. And yet, despite all the struggle, he had to report that “instead of casting me down”, painting “uplifts me”.
Delacroix’s attitudes to women were probably no worse than those of most Frenchmen (or Englishmen) of his time. They are more noticeable in his case, however, because he was so blatant in the way he expressed them in his pictures. Delacroix took the view — as Nietzsche would later express it — that it is “only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world is justified”. It is not justified as an ethical phenomenon: the injustice and suffering that ineradicably characterise most of human existence are far too great for that.
But making the aesthetic response the fundamental way of evaluating experience has some profoundly unsettling consequences, one of which is that ethics and morals are secondary to aesthetic experiences. And that in turn means that anything — literally anything, death and torture included — can, if it can be made beautiful, turned into art.
Delacroix, as his journals reveal, was not a convinced Christian. He had no religious belief at all. And yet he painted many pictures that have Christian subjects — he seemed particularly to respond to the torment of the crucifixion, and the sufferings of Christ’s mother and his disciples immediately after his death. His attitude to these scenes seems to have been purely aesthetic: he admired or in some way enjoyed the emotions they generated, and the opportunities for using colour and form creatively to convey those emotions that such scenes presented. To look at something as horrible as the crucifixion in primarily aesthetic terms — to see the torture crucifixion involves as an opportunity for using beautiful colours and fine lines — may appear as scarcely better morally than Sardanapalus having all his servants and concubines killed simply because it made a fine spectacle and would be amusing to watch (although in Delacroix’s painting, Sardanapalus is not amused: he seems instead to be bored).
Delacroix’s aestheticism is not quite as bad as Sardanapalus’s: no one gets hurt when Delacroix paints the crucifixion. But in placing aesthetic values above moral ones, Delacroix is at one end of a very disturbing spectrum. Sardanapalus is at the other.
Few of Delacroix’s often ferocious critics noticed his profound subversion of conventional values. They tended to focus on the lack of “finish” in his work — by which they usually meant you could see the brush strokes — and on the fact that his pictures were not composed according to classical rules, which was a totally inappropriate criticism, because their underlying proportions and schemas are often as governed by conventional principles of composition as anyone could possibly want. But it may have been Delacroix’s refusal to accept the “moral interpretation of existence” that was actually upsetting them — just as it may be what unsettles us now about much of Delacroix’s art: its rejection of the ethical in favour of the aesthetic.
That rejection is evident even in Delacroix’s most explicitly political picture: Liberty Leading the People. Delacroix had lived through, though not participated in, the street riots in Paris in the summer of 1830 that persuaded Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France, to abdicate. Delacroix decided he wanted to paint a picture of “contemporary French life”. Liberty Leading the People was the result. It was not received with universal acclaim, but someone high up in the new government liked it, and so the French state bought it for the sum of 3,000 francs. Delacroix was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur for painting it. Delacroix had some powerful friends in that government, including Adolphe Thiers, which ensured that he was never short of state patronage. But the government’s officials soon had second thoughts: they thought that exhibiting Liberty Leading the People would encourage people who saw it to take to the streets and riot, so they hid it away.
“July 28, 1830: Liberty Leading the People”, 1831 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado
Liberty Leading the People, despite its title, is not political propaganda for anything. What political ideal does it advocate? Only one character is celebrating the “revolution”: the small boy brandishing two pistols — and he is clearly too young to know what he is doing. Everyone else appears to be distinctly hesitant. The man in the top hat — the embodiment of the bourgeois — is very far from enthusiastically rushing forward to usher in a glorious new political era: he is on his back foot, hesitant, anxious, unsure and reluctant to follow the flag-waving spirit of Liberty — who herself is looking backwards. Delacroix the artist seems to be far more interested in following the curves — and particularly the breasts — of the woman who symbolises Liberty than in persuading his viewers that the revolution is going to transform life for the better. The corpses in the foreground communicate very clearly the most likely result of any attempt at revolution.
Liberty Leading the People was wheeled out again after Parisians took to the streets again, in 1848—but it was put away soon afterwards, again on the basis that it was too inflammatory to be seen regularly by the people of Paris. Later, Liberty Leading the People became something it was never intended to be: an image of socialist revolution. Delacroix was deeply pessimistic about humanity, and its capacity for improvement. Like many pessimists, he was a profound political conservative. He was suspicious of any politics that promised to transform society, and he thought social schemes for universal happiness were stupid. If Liberty Leading the People has a message, it consists in its unsettling attempt to aestheticise revolution: to find beauty in violence, and thereby turn it into art.
It has to be recognised that finding beauty in violence is what many of Delacroix’s pictures aim to do. His wonderful depictions of lion hunts, which are so full of ferocity and cruelty, are also beautiful. So are his paintings of mortal combat between Arab fighters.
But Delacroix’s art cannot be reduced to any single theme. The variety of his output was extraordinary. Over a thousand of his paintings survive, together with more than 6,000 drawings and hundreds of engravings — and plenty of them have nothing at all to do with death or violence. He was a master painter of flowers: his flower pictures have the all vivacity and colour that you would expect, but also an accuracy and a delicacy that you would not. His studies of waves on the sea, and of clouds, which he did towards the end of his life, have a glorious calming effect on the viewer, as well as communicating the tremendous mystery inherent in the most seemingly banal and familiar aspects of the natural world. Many of his drawings are masterpieces in their own right, and they give the lie to the idea that he was “only” a colourist: what he can do without colour is extraordinary.
The exhibition on now at the Louvre presents the full range of Delacroix’s work. It is a fitting testament to his artistic genius. I recommend it heartily. If you can go, do — even if you think you don’t like Delacroix.