Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 12, 2018
Margaret MacNamidhe Delacroix and His Forgotten World: The Origins of Romantic Painting London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2015. 256 pp.; 36 color ills. Hardcover $49.00 (9781780769370)

Margaret MacNamidhe’s Delacroix and His Forgotten World: The Origins of Romantic Painting seeks to revise the narrative of Romantic history painting in France by ascribing to the Salon of 1824 a much more transformative role than it has played in previous art historical accounts. MacNamidhe argues that the art criticism that the Salon of 1824 generated, not only regarding Eugène Delacroix’s provocative entry Scenes from the Massacres at Chios: Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery, etc. but also acclaimed paintings that have now fallen in oblivion, including Xavier Sigalon’s Locusta, Giving Narcissus a Poison Destined for Britannicus, Tests It on a Young Slave, captured the fundamental friction that existed, at that particular moment, between different forms of history painting. As a result, MacNamidhe maintains that any understanding of the nineteenth-century fragmentation of history painting in the wake of Jacques-Louis David’s legacy requires a methodical analysis of the way in which artists and critics engaged with this genre in 1824. Furthermore, the book claims a related ambition, which is to complicate the perception of Delacroix as a painter whose entire oeuvre can be defined by four characteristics: movement, emotion, bright colors, and vigorous brushwork. MacNamidhe argues that Chios, especially through its “complete lack of action” (viii), defies this simplified portrayal of Delacroix’s artistic output. Considering that the developments of Romantic painting were conditioned by the Salon of 1824, the author concludes that Chios must gain center stage in any understanding of Delacroix’s oeuvre.

The book’s five chapters combine detailed formal analyses of paintings—the author’s approach is decidedly formalist—and careful examinations of art criticism, with Étienne-Jean Delécluze and Stendhal receiving the closest attention. The book ends with a brief consideration of the author’s positioning of her research within recent scholarship on Delacroix, including Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s and Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s work. These art historians’ influential scholarship on Delacroix’s philhellenic oeuvre is also referenced earlier in the book; consistent with the author’s method, however, Michael Fried’s work plays a much more prominent role in the development of MacNamidhe’s argument. For it is the modernity of Delacroix’s touch in Chios that interests MacNamidhe, not the political immediacy of its subject matter, which goes mostly unnoticed. (The seminal 1996 exhibition catalogue La Grèce en révolte: Delacroix et les peintres français, 1815–1848,1 expanding on Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s 1989 book,2 is not mentioned.) Finally, two appendices supporting the author’s formal claims supplement her study: the first is the complete text, in French, of Le mécanicien roi—a short novel by Delécluze (1832) that offers insight into the art critic’s relative praise of Chios; the second expands on remarks made in chapter 3 about the rearing horse in Chios.

Chapter 1 invokes a wide range of writings on Delacroix, including by Charles Baudelaire, Paul Signac, Clement Greenberg, and Fried. It demonstrates that the characteristics conventionally associated with Delacroix’s paintings are absent from these key texts. A much less monolithic image of his oeuvre therefore begins to emerge—one where action is not discussed and where the association of his compositions with the concept of the tableau is implicitly challenged, as evidenced by critics’ recurrent tendency to isolate and highlight a single and secondary figure in the artist’s pictures. Thus Delacroix’s compositional approach in Chios, notwithstanding “localized debts” (21) to The Raft of the Medusa (Salon of 1819), ultimately departs from Géricault’s pyramidal composition. While this point is well taken, MacNamidhe’s exclusive focus on form—and her omission of Géricault’s introduction of contemporary reality into the realm of history painting—has the regrettable effect of normalizing The Raft.

Chapter 2 develops the themes of inaction and the isolated figure introduced in chapter 1 through a brilliant examination of Delécluze’s critique of the Salon of 1824. According to Delécluze, a former student of David’s, these two themes admirably coalesced in the reclining male figure in the foreground of Chios. Delécluze was not completely hostile to the painting, MacNamidhe argues, because this figure ultimately provided a more satisfying response to David than some paintings that were allegedly more Davidian, such as Alexandre Abel de Pujol’s Germanicus on the Battlefield of Varus. For de Pujol’s grande machine precisely failed to single out a figure, unlike its esteemed model, David’s Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814). MacNamidhe astutely notes that isolation and individual domination are devices that Delécluze himself employed in Le mécanicien roi, thus highlighting the degree to which these were central to his aesthetics.

Chapter 3 focuses on Delacroix’s brushwork in Chios in light of critics’ responses. The juxtaposition of the old woman and dying mother in the foreground is studied particularly closely. MacNamidhe observes that the density of paint is the same for both figures, whereas other parts of the composition combine “a thickening and thinning of paint” (73; emphasis in original). According to her, the absence of a thinning of paint and the lack of glazes for the rendering of the dying mother’s flesh interfered with critics’ ability to determine whether this figure was still alive or already dead. Similarly, unexpected brushwork characterizes the rearing horse, resulting in an effect of disembodiment (“where the belly and rump of this horse are?” inquired Alphonse Rabbe, quoted 73). As for the texture of the animal’s mane, it is surprisingly thin, resembling the sky’s surface. Overall, Delacroix’s brushwork did not fulfill critics’ expectations of a Romantic painter. MacNamidhe demonstrates this most effectively when she discusses the “evacuation of equine signifiers” (146) in Delacroix’s horse in comparison to Géricault’s in The Charging Chasseur (Salon of 1812)—a compelling discussion unfortunately relegated to appendix 2.

Chapters 4 and 5 are interrelated, as both pertain to Sigalon’s Locusta. In contrast to the “uncertain future and ambiguous past” (98) in Delacroix’s Chios, Sigalon reached back to David’s narrative approach in The Oath of the Horatii (Salon of 1785), focusing his composition on a specific moment—that in which the poison that Locusta has just given to the slave agitates the latter’s body in convulsions announcing his imminent death. It is this straightforward causal relationship, MacNamidhe proposes, that seduced Stendhal. Furthermore, in a way similar to her treatment of Le mécanicien roi, MacNamidhe incorporates Stendhal’s History of Painting in Italy (1817) and Racine and Shakespeare (1823–24) into her argument to establish the continuity of the critic’s conception of effective dramatic representation in both painting and theater. Ultimately, Stendhal’s understanding of the experience of time arises as the core principle of his critical system, thus explaining his resistance to writing about the disjointed Chios. This claim allows MacNamidhe to bring home her argument about the fundamental rupture performed by Chios.

Delacroix and His Forgotten World undoubtedly makes an important contribution to reception studies in analyzing the beginning of a formal split within Romantic painting through its close analysis of art criticism. This aspect—the most persuasively argued—will appeal to art historians interested in debates surrounding history panting, the genre that has received the most critical attention since the birth of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, as MacNamidhe hints through occasional detours into the seventeenth century and the pre-David eighteenth century. However, the book’s monographic axis complicates the delimitation of its audience. On the one hand, MacNamidhe seems to address a reader for whom Chios is virtually unknown (this is surprising, as this monumental painting, purchased by the French state in 1824 and on view in the Louvre across from The Raft, remains a milestone in surveys of French Romantic painting). On the other hand, as the author herself acknowledges, she discusses “only a limited number of passages of paint” (87) in Chios—a statement that could be extended to her examination of the picture as a whole since some of the foreground figures and the middle-ground battle are barely addressed, as if the reader were expected to be aware of them already. In other words, the book is incredibly specific about certain aspects of Chios while at the same time leaving out some of its nuances, as well as some information, such as Delacroix’s preparatory studies for Chios, that one would expect considering the book’s ambition to revitalize art history’s enthusiasm for this painting.

The book is beautifully illustrated—it includes a remarkable number of color images—yet the logic of the layout is unclear. In addition, the omission of some key books in the bibliography on account of their referencing in the endnotes (including Grigsby’s Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror, mistakenly attributed to Abigail Solomon-Godeau in note 15, 156) make the use of the book a bit difficult and again invite confusion about whether it is meant for a specialized or general audience. But these production issues should not overshadow MacNamidhe’s achievement: her profoundly original study raises an impressive range of formal and critical problems in relation to Delacroix and as such, opens up many avenues for future research on Romanticism.

1 La Grèce en révolte: Delacroix et les peintres français, 18151848. Musée des beaux-arts, Bordeaux, June 14–8 September 8, 1996; Musée national Eugène-Delacroix, Paris; October 8, 1996–January 13, 1997; National Art Gallery–Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens, February 12–April 25, 1997 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996).

2 Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, French Images from the Greek War of Independence, 18211830: Art and Politics under the Restoration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Frédérique Baumgartner
Lecturer and Director of MA in Art History, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University