Medea's Myth by Delacroix, in the Eugene Delacroix Museum. In Greek mythology, Medea, famed for her sorcery, was daughter of the King of Colchis and wife to Jason of the Argonauts. Infuriated with her husband's unfaithfulness, the vengeful Medea sent her husband's mistress an enchanted gown which burned her to death, and then she killed her own two children.
Delacroix, as many before and after him, was haunted by the story of Medea. Inspired by Euripides and Seneca as well as Corneille and Cherubini, transforming older drawings of the subject with his immense personality, Delacroix has left us the legacy of this great masterpiece charged with human drama. In fact, Delacroix made several versions on this theme throughout his life in 1838, 1859 and 1862. He exhibited the 1838 version in the Salon of the same year, where Medea is portrayed blinded by rage, her eyes and forehead in darkness, her calumnious mouth half open, her hands about to commit the most abominable of all crimes. The critics at the time were full of praise for the work and criticized only the unusual portrayal of the face half hidden in darkness, not grasping the highly symbolic significance of "eyes blinded by rage" and a "mind possessed with darkness".
Delacroix: Portrait of a Romantic Master
A recent visit to the Eugene Delacroix Museum, his former studio on the rue de Fürstenberg, struck me so deeply more so than when I first discovered him as a student that I felt I had to share some of the experience by brushing a portrait.
Delacroix personified the Romantic spirit of Paris more than any other artist; without him the art of painting would not have the same significance, energy and grandeur. Yet he was also amongst the first to denounce the human condition, the material and spiritual misery a majority of us have to bear: the wars, the suffering flesh, the spilt blood, the cruelty of it all. This may help explain why Delacroix's work has a lasting poignancy that will always rank him amongst the greatest witnesses of life and humanity.
Imagine him in his thirties: dark and handsome, wild and charismatic, strange and enigmatic haunted by "wicked angels" as Baudelaire described him and obsessed by art and painting. The rebellious hair, haughty eyes, willful mouth and strong chin of his self-portrait and Daguerreotypes reveal also the exaggerated rigidity of the personage. In fact, some find him arrogant, affected, narrow-minded and addicted to the past; others fall for his charming, suave and feline manners. He probably had a mixture of all these qualities and defects, making him all the more charming.
Son of a high official of the Republic and of the Empire, he was a child of the Napoleonic era, and since the age of 15 when he saw for the first time the work of Gros, Veronese and Rubens in the Louvre, the grandiose and heroic what he called the "great machines" stimulated his imagination and decided him to become a painter. This oversized vision and ambition, together with the fashionable dandy's "cult of the self" so much encouraged by Stendhal (especially his "don't neglect anything that can make you great"), are perhaps at the origin of this perception of him today as excessive or arrogant. Yet it is precisely this aspiration to greatness that makes him the natural successor of David, Gros and Gericault.
He loved reading and music, and like all art and culture lovers he was excessive in his admiration of the creation of the authors and the artists of the past. He even wrote "I have no sympathy for the present time. My preferences go to the artists of the last century. I am indifferent to the ideas that fascinate my contemporaries". And yet he was the first to devour their work.
Life being a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, can we be sure that what is reported has not been taken out of context, even though most quotations come from his own artistic diary?
This aspect of his personality, which is in absolute contrast to Baudelaire's appreciation of his brilliant contemporaries, is the reason for his reputation as a reactionary stuck in the past; it is poles apart from his artistic achievement, that was progressive and avant-garde in technique and spirit, even when portraying historic events.
He was often caustic in his criticism of contemporary musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart (whom he loved, but he couldn't help criticizing) and Schubert. And he was no less biting in his criticism of contemporary writers: e.g. of George Sand, "her work will not last"; of Stendhal "insolent and self-justifying work that could lead him to idiocy". Indeed, hardly any of the contemporary authors were spared, and they included the likes of Hugo, Musset, and Balzac as well as Dumas (to whom he confessed preferring Dante, Aristotle, Horace, Virgil,Voltaire and Shakespeare. But, even the latter, whose plays inspired many of Delacroix's paintings, would not escape criticism towards the end. And only Goethe, who clearly influenced him strongly (to the point of inspiring a series of etchings), was not subjected to his critical disdain. Yet, behind this penchant to criticize you can see the spirit of a perfectionist, someone who was not only demanding in his own work but also in the work of others. It shows an ambition that aspires ever higher. And is ambition so reprehensible that some take it for pride; after all, it is said that the most ambitious amongst mankind are the saints who aspire at being sinless.
Although highly critical of his epoch, he was born into and lived in one of the most exhilirating times of history the Romantic period and his work shares the same Romantic spirit as a Schubert or Victor Hugo. This period succeeded the post-revolution, from which emerged a far more nationalistic France that had almost forgotten the more open and cosmopolitan century preceding it of Voltaire and Montesquieu. Spurred in part by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (especially his admiration for the heroic and for the individuality and imagination of the artist) as well as the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the Revolution, once again, with the Romantic movement, an opening to the exterior was perceptible and Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Schiller's work became fashionable in France. No other movement had been as far and deep into the dark side of the human soul, making transgression, exaggeration and passionate pursuits the hallmark of geniuses such as Baudelaire, Balzac or Musset.
In reality, Delacroix's artistic personality can be defined as one who has his feet solidly anchored in his roots, his head navigating in the future, and his hand in his own epoch flourishing with creativity. Although he admired Rubens and David, his treatment of colors was so advanced that he paved the way for the future Impressionists and Pointillists. Paul Signac defined Delacroix as an innovative colorist who had the "science" of coloration and knew how to superpose and juxtapose complementary colors without mixing them, and how this mastery left his spirit free for the "moral" composition of his canvas. His 'Liberty Guiding the People' (1831) is a truly felt allegory conceived with such outburst of passion and executed with such innovative fugue that it was shocking for his contemporaries. Color became alphabet to compose the poetic essence of a world that tells the story of humanity with all it's despair, chaotic injustice and destructive energy.
Baudelaire was the first to signal "the irremediable pain orchestrated by the contrast of red and green" in Delacroix's 'Dante and Virgil' or in the 'Massacre at Chios'. In fact, his romantic soul was immensely touched by Byron's joining the cause of Greek independence from Turkish rule in 1823. Delacroix's contribution to the cause was to paint the 'Massacre at Chios' depicting the inhumanity during the loss of the Aegean island to the Turks centuries earlier. For him " the powerful movement, the torsion" as he described it himself were fundamental; the fact that he went back to the painting after seeing Constable's 'Hay Wain' prior to the Salon to add last-minute touches of white and resonant color to the background of this work, shows not so much a fussing over details but more likely a need to correct a dissonance in a majestic symphony.
The successor of the line of artists that descends from Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Leonardo (from whom he learned the concept of 'non-finito'), Veronese and El Greco, he admired David, Gros and his contemporary Gericault, while abhorring Ingres (another orientalist like himself), the linear idealist and his followers. "The precise, cold and calculated doesn't belong to the artistic domain", he wrote. "I forgot the little details to only remember the impacting and the poetic side". Yet his theatrical mise-en-scène of the 'The Death of Sardanapalus' brought on the fires of criticism for carting dead bodies in one wagon and the living in another. Hating classifications, categories and labels, he admitted that "if by Romanticism you mean the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my hatred for the 'academic' recipes and those who adhere to them, I must own that I am a Romantic and was a Romantic even at the age of 15".
He traveled little outside France, although he did make a trip to England in 1825 where he perfected his technique of the watercolor, admired Constable's work, drowned himself in Shakespeare's verses and decried the "permanent eclipse of the sun" on the venerable Isle. He also traveled to Morocco, and this was a fantastic stimulus that struck his fecund imagination and became the laboratory of his "dictionary of pictures". It was here that he finally found colors that fit the voluptuous legend of life; this life that is kept down by furious competition and struggle for survival, that is bloodied in fighting and covered in dirt and dust, yet is also grandiose and voluptuous, charged with energy and courage, shrouded in dignity, drama and despair. Even he prefers to portray angels that wrestle and fight: 'Jacob Wrestling the Angel' (in the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris) inspired him to say "this is emblematic of the trial that God sends to test his most beloved".
Delacroix was a great portraitist; indeed, each figure in his paintings shows the acute insight of the character of each person, revealing the innermost aspects of their soul. This is surely what prompted Van Gogh's telling and famous thought on Delacroix: "only Rembrandt and Delacroix could paint the face of Christ".
Curiously, although one would have imagined him a mundane socializer and a tireless globe-trotter, he spent most of his time in his beloved studio and declared that "the most real experiences for me are my own illusions created with my own paintings, and the rest is just moving sand."
His legacy is complex and immense; he was a witness of humanity at large, and not just of his epoch. He brought the art of painting a step forward by concentrating on the expression of spiritual unity of the composition. Colors, form and movement tended towards the same unity orchestrated with vigor and precision to portray the great spectacle of life's grandeur and misery. Every modern painter owes something to him, from the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists to Matisse and Picasso. He was excessive, yes, because he was himself larger than life.
1798: Born Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, son of a dignitary (foreign minister under the Directoire after the Revolution and later Prefect of the Gironde).
1816: Entered the studio of Pierre Guérin, fellow pupil of Géricault
1822: First painting exhibited in the Salon (Dante & Virgil in Hell).
1823/24: Painted 'Massacre at Chios'. Started his diary (journal) as an artistic record of his time.
1825: Spent time in England studying Constable (after seeing some of his work in Paris a year earlier), Gainsborough, Lawrence, Elty and Wilkie.
1826: Painted 'Death of Sardanapalus' and 'Emperor Justinian'.
1827: Painted 'Christ in the Olive Garden'.
1829: Painted 'King John at the Battle of Poitiers' (a battle that John the Good lost!).
1830-31: Exhibited 'Liberty Guiding the People' at the Salon.
1832/33: Visited Morocco and Algiers. (In 1830's adopted vibrating color tones and 'Divisionist' color effects along with harsh brush-work to make color enter into the structure of a picture more than ever before).
1833-37: Decorations in the Salon du Roi of the Bourbon Palace in Paris.
1834: Painted 'Women of Algiers'.
1838-47: Decorations in the Library of the Bourbon Palace in Paris.
1845: 'Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness' displayed at the Salon.
1841-46: Decorations in the Library of the Luxembourg Palace. Painted 'Capture of Constantinople'.
1848: 'Christ at the Tomb' displayed at the Salon.
1850-51: Painted the ceiling of the Apollon Gallery in the Louvre.
1853-61: Executed three paintings in the Church of Saint-Sulpice's 'Chapel of the Holy Angels'.
1855: Honored with a personal room showing 36 canvasses at the Universal Exhibition. Made Commander of the Legion of Honor. Painted 'Arabs Traveling'.
1857: Became a member of the Institute of France.
1863: Painted 'Combat of Arabs in the Mountains' (also known as 'Arab Tax Collection').
1863: Died in the rue Fürstenberg studio on August 13.
Art Lovers' Paris