Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

DELACROIX IN THE AGE OF DUCHAMP

October 15, 2018

Tags: Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863), Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux
Was Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) a young radical? An old radical? Or was he merely another ambitious member of the 19th century French art-world Establishment following tamely in the footsteps of Ingres? Attempting to deal with these issues is “Delacroix,” the sprawling and lovely retrospective that has come to The Metropolitan Museum of Art after its inaugural run at The Louvre earlier this year (and here in New York through January 6).

Alas, instead of answering these questions, the show shies away from them-- primarily through its accompanying literature, but also (even if necessary) through its choice of work to display.

BACKGROUND: WHERE I STARTED FROM

Needless to say, this ambivalence on the part of the show’s organizers is most likely not apparent to most of the good people who come to see this show. It is only because I am so indecently ancient that I know where the bodies are buried – and it is only because I’m a modernist that I am seized by an equally indecent desire to dig them up.

Around 1974, after I’d spent 30 months steeping myself in contemporary art by writing about it on Time, I was preparing to go to graduate school and see what the universities had to teach me about the history of art. And, by way of preparing myself, I read “The History of Impressionism” by John Rewald (1912-1994)

This was the revised 4th edition of a book had that originally been published in 1946. A modernist classic, it told the story of 19th century painting in France with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres as the heavy in the piece—a despotic neo-classicist and conservative apostle of line and drawing.

Delacroix was Ingres’s radical opponent, the quintessential Romantic – and the hero of the two to Rewald. With his freer brushwork and more vigorous application of color, Delacroix was rejected time after time for membership in the French Academy – even though, year after year, he exhibited at the Salons and his work was admired by many critics, most notably the poet Baudelaire.

“Relentlessly,” Rewald wrote, “Ingres pursued the fight of classicism against romanticism, of line against color, which was to be the chief topic whenever artists met.”

Rewald also described how Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and even Degas saw Delacroix as their hero, too, and leader of the progressive forces in French painting.

Even though most of his paintings dealt with historical, literary or religious topics, and they chose to paint landscapes or scenes from daily life, they admired his work at the Salons and in his mural commissions for state buildings and churches.

Rewald tells how in 1857, at the age of nearly 60, Delacroix’s eighth application for a membership at French Academy was finally accepted. He ends his coverage of Delacroix with an account of his death in 1863.

He describes how Odilon Redon had once followed him along a street after a ball, how Monet & Bazille used to watch him paint in his garden from a neighboring house, and how Fantin-Latour was moved by his death to paint a large picture showing all of Delacroix’s friends and admirers.

Rewald doesn’t deal with the significance of line versus color, but what little he did say plugged into a historical and ideological context that I already knew – primarily from having read “History of Art Criticism” (1936) by Lionello Venturi (1885-1961) during my last summer at Time.

A generation older than Rewald, Venturi was still strenuously resisting 20th century modernism in his history of criticism, but what he said about line versus color, and the conflict between Ingres and Delacroix broadened and deepened my understanding of the polarity involved.

Most importantly, he showed how the debate over line versus color equated to a larger debate that went back at least to the 17th century, if not to the Renaissance: this debate equated line with reason and color with feeling or emotion.

Venturi was a passionate supporter of Delacroix, since he believed that the visual arts could not be appreciated by logical, rational argument, but only by the more intuitive approach of esthetics.

WHAT I LEARNED IN GRAD SCHOOL

Unfortunately, when I got to grad school, I discovered that nobody wanted me to be reading Rewald, let alone Venturi. This was because the entire field of art history – and particularly the last few centuries of it – was in the throes of “revisionism.”

“Revisionism” meant celebrating the Academy, and rehabilitating Ingres and all the mediocre academic painters following his lead whom Rewald – echoing the sentiments of the impressionists themselves – had despised.

I see this as a reflection of postmodernism’s insistence that art should be returned “to the service of the mind” but won’t go into that here.

I shall just say that I was told about newer books which took this tack, by Robert Rosenblum & Hugh Honour, among others.

Such books, and my teachers who recommended them, played down stylistic characteristics (which they regarded as “narrow”) and played up subject matter (with its potential for relating to “broader” social, psychological and economic trends).

Both Delacroix and Ingres had been dedicated primarily to “history painting,” then the most prestigious category of pictures in the Academy’s ranking. “History painting” could mean history, from antiquity to the present, but it also meant literary and/or religious and mythological subjects.

Delacroix was more apt to deal with modern or medieval subjects, while Ingres tended more toward classical ones, but since Delacroix had also done classical subjects, and Ingres had done medieval ones, this emphasis on subject matter tended to make the two seem more alike.

Don’t get me wrong: I greatly admire Ingres, especially his splendid portraits. Over the years, I have also developed plenty of interest in, and written extensively about, the subject matter and context of paintings (not necessarily representational ones, either).

Not all of the reading I did in grad school buttress the “revisionist” point of view. I was also introduced to “David to Delacroix,” by Walter Friedlaender (1930; English translation, 1952).

This book told me how the 19th century debate of Ingres versus Delacroix was also the revival of a 17th century debate in French art history, with admirers of Rubens claiming that color was more important, and admirers of Poussin advocating the primacy of line.

Delacroix adored Rubens, and was greatly influenced by his compositions and his color; Ingres despised both painters.

This knowledge in turn fitted in with a term paper I’d done in freshman year on the Swiss art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin (1884-1945). He had dealt with the distinctions between Renaissance and baroque styles (and so became known as the earliest of the formalists).

Renaissance art and architecture, he argued, was “linear,” while baroque was “painterly” or "malerisch".

The Renaissance’s “linear” style was distinguished by the tidy way in which images were created, with neat, narrow pencil lines, and by its compositional devices, including “closed” shapes that balanced off in the center of the composition, and rectilinear lines (emphasis on verticals and horizontals).

The baroque’s painterly style, by contrast, employed brushes or broad-pointed charcoal sticks for creating images, and by “open” shapes that headed off in directions outside the picture plane, diagonals in other words.

The overall contrast in compositional formats might be summarized by saying that the Renaissance was “serene” while the baroque was “agitated” or calling the Renaissance “static” and the baroque “dynamic” (which pairs of adjectives to use depending upon which style you preferred).

Ingres was very linear, and an admirer of the Renaissance – the serenity of Raphael in particular. Delacroix was very painterly, adored the terribilità of Michelangelo, and made great use of swashbuckling diagonals in many of his compositions.

One other trait that he seems to have gotten from the baroque, but as much from 17th century Dutch or even Spanish paintings as from the Flemish ones of Rubens: a certain fondness for treating his subjects on a grand scale.

This was true not only when they were history paintings but also when they were subjects that belonged to the “lower” orders of paintings (as classified by the Academy): genre, portraiture, landscapes and still lifes. This was just one of his several tendencies that upset critics reviewing the Salons.

APPLYING MY KNOWLEDGE TO THE CURRENT SHOW’S LITERATURE

Well, then, to sum up: what do we find in this exhibition at the Met than enables us to call Delacroix a radical (old or young)? And what do we find that will tag him instead only as an ambitious member of the 19th century French art-world Establishment?

To me, it’s primarily a question of style versus subject matter. Stylistically, he stands for loose brushwork, vigorous color and color contrasts, painterly compositions (with lots of diagonals), and outsize scale for modest subjects. All of these things were in his day controversial.

But if you look at his subject matter, he is much more a man of his time, with grandes machines for the Salons devoted to historical or literary or religious subjects, everything suitable for acquisition by the French state for its public buildings or for churches.

Admittedly, many of his choices for subjects to illustrate – from Byron & Sir Walter Scott to Shakespeare & Goethe – were characteristic of Romantic taste.

Yet this whole set of subjects would obsolesce when Courbet, Manet and the impressionists began to glorify what were essentially genre scenes from daily 19th century French life.

So why did the impressionists continue to love him? Why did even Picasso say “That bastard. He’s really good.”?

You won’t get much help from the main essay in the catalogue to the Met’s show, which is titled “The Sphinx of Modern Painting,” and reflects the revisionist tide of the 1970s. It was written by the two officials from the Louvre who organized the original show, Sébastien Allard & Côme Fabre.

(A third curator, Asher Miller of the Met, is credited in the show’s press release as a co-organizer, but it seems likely that he had most to do with the New York version of the show.

(Although the two versions of the show have approximately same number of works on their checklists, nearly half of those on the checklist of the New York catalogue are labeled “New York only.”)

Anyway, as far as Allard & Fabre are concerned, Ingres is a good guy, too. In fact, he is introduced as the real revolutionary, with Delacroix following more or less tamely in his steps.

The relevant passage reads, “Unlike Ingres, whose talent was nurtured in David’s studio and who, in 1806, said that ‘art needs to be reformed,’ Delacroix did not want to be ‘that particular revolutionary’ who would carry out reform.”

A little later, this essay suggests that none of the artists were concerned with the issue of line versus color (or any other polarity, either). The story we get is that it was all a media circus, set in motion solely by the critics of the 1840s.

And finally, a determined attempt is made to set up Monet as an adversary of Delacroix, not an admirer, by a selective quotation from a letter he wrote to a fellow-artist after seeing the Salon of 1859.

It’s true that Monet wrote that he felt he’d seen better paintings by Delacroix than he saw in that exhibition, but considering that Delacroix was past 60 and in poor health, this probably didn’t surprise him -- and shouldn’t surprise us (life expectancy was much shorter then).

Even so, Monet concluded his remarks on an up note: “They are only indications, ébauches,” he wrote, “but as always, he has verve, he has movement.”

“Verve” and “movement” are essentially formal comments, not iconographic ones, and, I would suggest, it is primarily on formal grounds that the impressionists could still admire Delacroix, even in his old age– just as modernist painters in general may continue to admire him.

One gets a bit of this point of view in another major essay in the catalogue, by Dominique de Font-Réaulx, director of the Museé Nationale Eugène Delacroix in Paris.

In her essay, she shows how eventually Delacroix became as widely accepted as Ingres, and that comparisons with Ingres “no longer offered the point and counterpoint that had fueled the passions of opposing factions during the Salons of the 1820s.”

In other words, the debate regarding line v. color and the other contrasts with Ingres dated back to the 1820s, not the 1840s; de Font-Réaulx also implies that everybody joined in this debate, artists as well as critics.

“Few artists,” she goes on, “have ever stirred such a passionate response following their deaths.” After citing the Fantin Latour painting, she continues that “This homage to Delacroix was followed by many more: Paul Cézanne, Aimé-Jules Dalou, Odilon Redon & Maurice Denis, among others, composed works celebrating the artist.”

Although both these essays focus more on the artist’s life and the subject matter of his paintings, the first has an extended stylistic discussion of “Scenes from the Massacre of Chios” (1824), the first, largest and most famous representation of Delacroix’s sympathy with the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottoman Turks.

This was not the artist’s first appearance at the Salons. Two years earlier, he had already attracted a lot of attention with “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (1822). With its somber and even horrific mood, and in its Michelangelo-like figures, it already represented the beginnings of a revolt against the neoclassicism first established by David and carried on by Ingres. But it took ”Scenes” to make this revolt into a revolution.

In “The Sphinx of Modern Painting,” the authors point out the radicalism of the composition, with the dead and dying Greeks slumping down on either side of the canvas to a low point in its center, and no positive, hero-like figure in the middle to unite its two disparate sides.

This essay also discusses how Delacroix had seen some paintings by the English painter Constable at a Paris picture-dealer, and was inspired by them to daub highlights and flecks of color on “Scenes,” adding to its intensity and brightness of color.

The effect was so off-putting to the neoclassicists that it was called “the massacre of painting” by Gros, the neoclassic painter who until t hen had been a booster of Delacroix’s. The phrase stuck.

.Unhappily, both of these paintings were deemed too large and too fragile to make the journey across the Atlantic. The same applies to “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), the artist’s celebrated tribute to the July Revolution of 1830.

As all three belong to the Louvre, they were included in the Louvre’s version of this show.

So was the monumental version of “The Death of Sardanapalus,” (1827), which measures nearly 13 by 16 feet, and illustrates the climax of a play by Byron.

In it an Assyrian king, knowing he is going to lose the war in which he is engaged, orders the execution of those he loves, including all his concubines and all his favorite horses.

THE SHOW ITSELF

Fortunately, Delacroix painted a smaller replica of this painting in 1844, and it is on hand—to demonstrate Delacroix’s fondness for color, freedom of brushstroke, and use of an “open” composition, with heavy diagonals in its view of the reclining king and his dead and dying possessions.

And there is a lot more to love in this exhibition. On view are nearly 150 pictures -- oils, watercolors, gouaches, drawings and lithographs --- testifying to the artist’s talent and industry from his youth to old age.

The first of the show’s twelve galleries, according to the wall text, is devoted to “Delacroix at the Salons of the 1820s.” It has four paintings, two big and two small ones.

One of the two big ones is “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1824-26). I saw this painting last in 1975, when it was in another big show of French painting at the Met.

It has been newly cleaned, so the red of Christ’s robe and the white of his undergarment are very vivid: they are brightly lit, though the rest of the painting depicts figures seen only in shadow (three angels, sleeping apostles, and the mob coming to arrest him).

Yet the label says absolutely nothing about the painting’s color or its distinctively Romantic composition, with its dynamic diagonals. And, as this painting was a commission for a church, its subject is not particularly evocative of Romantic ideals.

The second large painting is much better known, if not as large. It is “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi” (1824-26). Its composition centers on a tall, virginal-looking, grieving woman who symbolizes Greece, as this is another one of the artist’s few statements on contemporary events.

It also has poetic overtones. It commemorates the slaughter of the Greeks of that town by their Turkish overlords, but it can also be read as a tribute to Byron, who had gone to Greece to help with the revolution, but died of a fever contracted in Missolonghi in 1824, at the age of only 36.

This is a moving picture, but its paint application is not particularly free, its colors are muted, and its composition is pretty straight up-and-down.

The other two paintings in this gallery are both small and only one is distinguished by bright colors and free brushwork.

This one is “Mortally Wounded Brigand Quenches His Thirst” (ca. 1825), which (in another topic from Byron) depicts a crouching highwayman crawling up to a spring or brook to swallow a last gulp of water.

But – lest observers be tempted to admire the sincerity of the painting and the formal innovation of that brushwork -- the label sneers, “There is a certain wicked pleasure in the marriage of virtuoso brushwork to color, in combination with the painting’s emotional detachment – a far cry from Christ in the Garden of Olives.”

I don’t see “detachment” in this little painting. I do see it in “Christ in the Garden of Olives.”

As I have dithered on for a long time about what made Delacroix a true radical, and how the fine people who put this show together do or don’t make his uniqueness clear, I’m not going to force the reader to sit still for a blow-by-blow description of its other eleven galleries.

I will say that, although the first four are rather sparsely hung, and not overly supplied with big paintings, this situation changes later on.

In addition to one gallery dominated by two versions of the “Sardanapalus,” we have another dominated by a huge semi-nude “Medea About to Kill Her Children” (1838).

One whole gallery offers the fruits of the artist’s visit in 1832 to North Africa, including the well-known “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834).

This would inspire Picasso more than a century later to create 15 paintings and also drawings.

And even these later galleries with small works can be exciting.

Most notably, the New York show includes a never-before-exhibited set of proofs of the wonderful lithographs Delacroix made illustrating a French edition of Goethe’s “Faust” (1826-28).

These proofs have sometimes even more wonderful free-hand drawings by the artist in their margins that were of course not included in the published book.

At the very end of the show is a monumental “Lion Hunt” (1855) which shows huge jungle felines attacking and mauling big horses and smaller men. This is only the bottom half of the original painting: the top half was destroyed by fire in 1870.

Fortunately, Delacroix made a smaller replica of this painting, too. On view in the same gallery, the replica clearly shows that in the upper half of the original painting, men on horseback were subduing the beasts.

The second, third and fourth galleries, though mostly distinguished by smaller works, have a lot to recommend them, too. The second is devoted to “The Image of the Artist,” and in addition to a fine self-portrait, displays pictures of other artists and writers with whom Delacroix identified.

One of the most beautiful is “Ovid among the Scythians” (1859), a pastoral showing the Roman poet who in 8 AD was banished by the emperor to the shores of the Black Sea.

The third gallery includes not only student académies but also a row of small, slightly naughty paintings of female nudes in one or another historical or literary context.

Known as the “troubadour” type of painting, they were much in demand by private collectors and must have helped keep Delacroix afloat financially in the years before the big commissions from the French state began to trickle in.

The fourth gallery is devoted to Delacroix’s fascination with wild cats: lions and tigers. He was friends with Antoine-Louis Barye, the French animalier (a specialist in art depicting animals).

The two of them used to go together to visit the menagerie in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, and make drawings of the animals to be found there (alive or dead).

On display are a number of smaller drawings and prints, but the centerpiece of this gallery is a big (4 ft. by 6 ft.) oil painting of a majestic mother tiger playing with her cub—who is practically a full-grown animal, too.

He is seen above her back, with his head above her rear end, and the bottoms of his hind paws above her shoulders. .

According to the label, “visitors to the 1831 Salon were struck by the size of this animal painting, which was then more appropriate for a historical subject.”

Other ways in which this painting was adventurous, according to its label, included the contrast between the dignified mother and the playful cub, and by the absence of any dramatic or narrative content.

This absence of dramatic or narrative content foreshadows impressionist paintings, and puts the burden of attracting interest on the part of the viewer squarely upon the appeal of its natural subject.

To this extent, too, it is adventurous, though to 21st century eyes it is only a beautiful painting of a beautiful subject.

I don’t know what dedicated postmodernists would make of these paintings, and whether or not they are much involved in parsing out the now-archaic subject matter.

I do think that although Delacroix was radical stylistically by 19th century standards, it’s a lot harder to appreciate his innovations in the 21st century.

Bright as his colors appeared then, we have had many brighter colors since, if only in the images of soup cans and paintings done in a comic strip style. And even the looseness of his brushwork is pretty conservative by comparison with an Olitski or Poons from the 1970s or 1980s

Still, the vitality of these innovations remains with us, the presence of the “verve and movement” that Monet noted. They speak of liberty, freedom from the strictures of the Academy and the past.