Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 2, 2019
Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, Michèle Hannoosh, Mehdi Korchane, and Asher Miller Delacroix Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018. 328 pp.; 288 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781588396518)
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, March 29–July 23, 2018; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 17, 2018–January 6, 2019
Eugène Delacroix, Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1824–26. Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, Paris (photograph © Jonathan P. Ribner)

On June 22, 1863—less than two months before his death—Delacroix concluded his Journal with a maxim that had guided his hand for some four decades: “The chief merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye.” Entwined with this pursuit of visual delight was an insatiable appetite for pathos to which he had earlier confessed in a letter to Baron Charles Rivet (February 15, 1838): “My tragic inclinations always dominate me, and the Graces rarely smile on me.” The fertility of this convergence of pleasure and pain was writ large in the exhibition that opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2018 following an earlier showing at the Louvre. The most generous assembly of works by Delacroix since the Louvre commemorated the 1963 centennial of his death, the exhibition immersed viewers in the oeuvre of an artist who was at once an outsider—his entry into the Académie des beaux-arts was achieved only on the eighth attempt—and an insider repeatedly rewarded with state commissions for monumental decorative cycles.

A major retrospective of an artist of this caliber and productivity should, by definition, be exhausting. Such must have been the 1963 exhibition of more than five hundred items, including the lion’s share of the movable canvases and numerous preparatory drawings. Scaled for viewer comfort rather than comprehensiveness, the recent exhibition was markedly less ambitious. Of the two installations, that in New York was bolder and more effective in illumination and wall color. Deep slate blue dramatically set into relief warm hues while resonant cranberry enhanced the blood of Christ crucified. Regrettably, the checklist was drastically revised prior to the transatlantic voyage. New York viewers were deprived of a host of Louvre celebrities, including The Barque of Dante, Scenes from the Massacres at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Still Life with Lobsters, The Twenty-Eighth of July: Liberty Leading the People, and The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. The selection of drawings, already lean in the Paris venue, was nearly eliminated. Some solace was provided by items exhibited solely in New York (notably, The Natchez and Michelangelo in His Studio) and, through November 12, 2018, by more than a hundred works on paper from the collection of Karen B. Cohen.

The surprise of the exhibition was nonetheless featured in both venues: Christ in the Garden of Olives, lowered from its high perch in the dusky Paris Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. Frontispiece to the New York installation, this recently and gloriously restored canvas announced the welcome inclusion of a number of religious paintings—a domain that tends to be upstaged in studies of nineteenth-century art by other, more overtly political types of subject matter. Viewed at eye level in full light, the vivid color of Delacroix’s first official commission seemed as fresh as it must have been in the Salon of 1827–28. There, it heralded the French Romantic attraction to a Christian subject infrequently treated by old masters, yet enormously popular in nineteenth-century France, when emphasis on Christ’s human vulnerability resonated with the mal du siècle. At the expense of devotional efficacy, Delacroix offers a feast for the eye no less enticing than Still Life with Lobsters, displayed in the same Salon. With a touching gesture, Christ (draped in white and ravishing coral) refuses the comfort offered by a trio of angels, his features set off by a radiant halo. By the 1840s, such bright passages had been abandoned in favor of a somber, moody palette, represented here in two of the artist’s strongest religious paintings: a Crucifixion (1846; Walters Art Museum, Baltimore) and Christ at the Tomb (1847–48; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)—the latter enthusiastically admired by Henry James in 1876 at the Paris gallery of Durand-Ruel. Though, in his later years, Delacroix savored the beauty of liturgy and church music, there is no evidence that he was a believing Catholic. Indeed, as a youth, he drew ribald, anticlerical caricatures. This did not inhibit a passion for Christian imagery that was as unbridled as his taste for Goethe, Byron, Shakespeare, and Scott.

There is a timeliness to Delacroix’s fixation on Christ around mid-century: Jesus was ubiquitous in the 1840s, whether identified by democratic socialists (whom the artist disdained) as the prototype and savior of the exploited worker or as the star of an efflorescence of religious painting that had begun in the previous decade. Readers in search of such contextual considerations will find the exhibition catalogue of limited help. There, the curators, Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre, provide an articulate discussion of the oeuvre in an extended essay that is nothing less than a complete monograph unto itself. A collection of pertinent, shorter essays on specialized topics, such as the artist’s Journal, his training, and his critical reception, together with a useful chronology (absent from the New York edition) are provided. Yet, catalogue entries on individual works are largely limited to listings of provenance and bibliography. As indicated by that bibliography, the Delacroix literature has grown substantially since 1963. In addition to the monumental catalogue raisonné of the paintings by Lee Johnson (1981–2002) and the magnificent edition of the Journal by Michèle Hannoosh (2009), there are important essays collected by Beth S. Wright in The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix (2001) as well as a spate of monographs, exhibition catalogues, and thematic studies. In view of this enrichment, the absence of expository entries represents a missed opportunity.

What the exhibition provided—especially in its Paris version—was a thrilling opportunity to survey the rich topography of the artist’s developing oeuvre. The young Delacroix arrived on the public stage with The Barque of Dante (Salon of 1822), winning a royal purchase as well as published praise from Adolphe Thiers, who would later be well placed to steer government commissions his way. As if compensating for his failure (1818) to win the Prix de Rome, Delacroix set forth the ample flesh and emphatic physiognomic expression expected of contestants. If the potent chiaroscuro, oily facture, and bold color announce a lifelong cult of Rubens, the display of the École des beaux-arts grimace would soon be replaced by the artist’s mature mode of expression: a reliance not on legible, operatic physiognomy—he tends to understate facial expression—but rather on resonant color chords and rhythmic pulse of undulating anatomy (be it human, equine, or feline), agitated drapery, and dynamic backdrop features, such as rocks, hills, or architecture. In view of this, it is no surprise that Delacroix’s work earned the fierce admiration of Van Gogh. Notable among the passages serving up a feast for the eye, for example, are the resplendent fabrics clothing the central odalisque of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834, Louvre). Perhaps her pendant watch was suggested to this literate painter by Rousseau’s mention, at the opening of Confessions, that his father traveled to Constantinople to serve as clockmaker to the harem. While visitors to the Metropolitan could observe the painter’s move, around mid-century, toward dark tonal unity, elimination of grace notes, and economizing of detail—as in the Baltimore Crucifixion and the Boston Christ at the Tomb—this development would have been brought home more surely had they been able to compare the Louvre’s Women of Algiers with its smaller, darker reprise of 1849 (Musée Fabre, Montpellier), exhibited solely in Paris.

It is often pointed out that Delacroix—who insisted that he was a pure classicist—was uneasy with being known as a Romantic. His innovative engagement with the classical heritage is embodied in Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux) and (sorely missed in New York) Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre). With a brilliance undiminished by familiarity, these two warm-blooded canvases—one imbued with empathy, the other with heady triumph—demonstrate that Delacroix was one of those rare nineteenth-century French painters capable of breathing new life into the humanistic tradition of allegory in its twilight. Notwithstanding Delacroix’s lack of popularity among nineteenth-century Salon visitors, both venues of this exhibition amply demonstrated the enduring vitality of a daring oeuvre grounded in respect for tradition.    

Jonathan P. Ribner
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Boston University