Eugène Delacroix. The Death of Sardanapalus (reduced replica), 1846. Oil on canvas. 73.7 x 82.4 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986 (1986-26-17).
“A picture is nothing but a bridge between the soul of the artist and that of the spectator,” Eugène Delacroix said and in his work we can see the radiant heart of a French Romantic beating wildly more than 150 years since his death. As poet Charles Baudelaire observed, “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible. In this dual character, be it said in passing, we find the two distinguishing marks of the most substantial geniuses, extreme geniuses.”
Indeed, Delacroix rose to be a legend in his own lifetime, and his style influenced a generation of artists to do away with the rules and use the act of painting as an expression of the soul. His style and subjects introduced a new movement in art, that o the Romantics who had had enough. The Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had only succeeded in driving society away from nature and truth. Romanticism called for an embrace of the full scope of life and death as made manifest by the experience of the sublime, that intangible everythingness that makes life divine.
Delacroix was born at the turn of the nineteenth century, in 1798, outside of Paris. It was said that Delacroix’s father was infertile and it was believed his real father was Talleyrand, a friend of the family. Throughout his career as a painter, he was protected by Talleyrand, then later by his grandson. This allowed Delaxcroix to use painting as a platform for political ideas. Beginning with Massacre at Chios (1824), depicting the events of March 1822, when Greek civilians were slaughtered, enslaved, or expelled afer a rebellion in the Mastichochoria area during their war of independence from the Turks.
Pure heart spoke to Delaxcroix. He used the canvas as a stage where human triumphs and tragedies could eternally befall. As a Romantic, emotion was an aesthetic experience, to be engaged with over and over again. The painting became sensuous and transcendent, and as he opened this channel, many were sure to follow.
Delacroix observed, “For a man who is sensitive to nature, happiness consists in expressing nature. How infinitely happy, then, is the man who reflects nature like a mirror without being aware of it, who does the thing for love of it and not from any pretensions to take first place. This noble unself-consciousness is what we find in all truly great men, in the founders of the arts.”
What a fitting way to introduce Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, now on view at the National Gallery, London, through May 22, 2016. An homage to one of the most revered artists of the nineteenth century, the exhibition feature a selection of Delaxcroix’s most celebrated images, as well as works by a generation of artists he inspired including Vincent Van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Henri Matisse, and Vassily Kandinsky, among others. Bringing together so many masterpieces, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art brilliantly illustrates Cézanne observation: “We all paint in Delacroix’s language.”
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.