Energetic, violent and complex — The art of Delacroix
We look at the life of the last painter of the Grand Style, the leader of the Romantics, prominent Orientalist and, during his lifetime, France’s most revered artist
Delacroix — the ‘poet in painting’
Eugène-Victor-Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863) has been lauded as the last painter of the Grand Style, as the leader of the Romantics and as the first modern master. His bold and technical work — often depicting scenes of violence, tragedy and destruction — inspired artists from Degas to Picasso, while the 19th-century French writer Charles Baudelaire described him as a ‘poet in painting’.
Delacroix was born in 1798 in a suburb of Paris, the youngest of four. Orphaned at the age of 16, he was watched over by the great French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who considered himself to be his real father. Within a year Delacroix, who had won awards at school for his drawing, had begun his training under the artist Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.
Inspired by The Raft of the Medusa
The young Delacroix was invited to model as one of the marooned sailors in Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (1819), an experience which changed the course of his career.
‘It made so tremendous an impression on me that when I came out of the studio I started running like a madman and did not stop till I reached my own room,’ Delacroix recounted of the sitting.
Inspired, Delacroix completed his first monumental Romantic canvas, The Barque of Dante, which caused a sensation when it was presented at the Salon in 1822. Purchased by the French state, the painting signalled a decisive shift away from the Neo-Classical tradition in which Delacroix had been trained and towards the emotion and individualism of the Romantic movement.
It was rapidly followed by two equally ambitious and emotional works, The Massacre at Chios and Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, both in support of the Greeks during their war of independence against the Turks. ‘After the unveiling of these three works, Delacroix became the most celebrated artist in France,’ says Stijn Alsteens, Christie’s International Head of Old Master Drawings.
Sketches and lithographs
Delacroix fully immersed himself in the fashionable arts, regularly attending Parisian operas and theatre productions. In later life he would declare, ‘Nothing can be compared with the emotion caused by music; that it expresses incomparable shades of feeling.’
There was a practical aspect to his appetite for culture; he was a prolific draughtsman who always had a sketch pad to hand, and he made many drawings of piano players and singers performing.
Delacroix began illustrating volumes of literature, which, says Alsteens, was ‘a good way for an artist to make money and entrench their reputation in 19th-century Europe’. The artist made lithographs for works by authors including Goethe, Byron and Shakespeare, including the example shown below of a sketch of characters from Hamlet.
Liberty Leading the People — Delacroix’s greatest masterpiece
In 1830, still in his early thirties, Delacroix painted what is arguably his masterpiece, Liberty Leading the People. Depicting the moment when public protests forced the abdication of the unpopular King Charles X, the work is now one of the Louvre’s great highlights. In 2017 Christie’s sold an oil sketch for the work for £3,128,750.
The dramatic painting cemented Delacroix’s place as the favourite artist of French politicians and statesmen, and although it was initially deemed too inflammatory for public viewing, the picture was eventually unveiled by Napoleon III several decades later.
Horses, tigers and Orientalism
In 1832, following the French conquest of Algeria, Delacroix accompanied a French diplomatic mission to Morocco. While there, he completed more than 100 paintings and drawings, establishing himelf as a leading figure in the Orientalist movement.
While in Morocco Delacroix also undertook studies of animals, including his two most famous subjects, horses and tigers.
‘Delacroix had always admired the 17th-century Baroque work of Peter Paul Rubens,’ explains Alsteens. ‘He saw in his paintings, among other things, their shared love for the heightened sense of movement and drama which these animals could bring to a scene.’
In 2018 Christie’s sold a painting by Delacroix — Tiger with Tortoise (1862) from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller — for £9,875,000, setting an auction record for the artist.
Frescoes for the church and the Louvre
After returning to France Delacroix continued to receive numerous commissions from the French government. In 1833 he began work on a decorative scheme for the Palais Bourbon in Paris, which would take him four years to complete. He also devised and executed decorations for the ceilings of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre.
In 1843, the artist began decorating the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrament; between 1857 and 1861 he worked on the frescoes for the Chapelle des Agnes at the Church of St. Sulpice, for which the drawing shown below is a study.
‘These large-scale works gave Delacroix a new sense of freedom and he was able to work in the same manner as the Old Master artists he so admired, including Rubens, Titian and Veronese,’ Alsteen explains. The ambitious work, however, took its toll on Delacroix, and by the winter of 1862 his health was failing.
As he lay on his deathbed Delacroix insisted that no death mask or posthumous drawings be made of his likeness, and he ordered the contents of his studio to be sold, with the proceeds going to his lifelong housekeeper. He died on 15 August 1863, and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
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Delacroix’s drawings and the market
In 2018 the Louvre and the Met Museum mounted the first full retrospective of the artist in Paris since 1963, which also included a huge selection of Delacroix’s drawings.
‘His paintings are rarer to market, and can command millions,’ says Alsteens. ‘The most expensive drawings — those typically depicting animal and human studies combined — can fetch up to £100,000. His watercolours can go even higher.’
At the other end of the scale are his figure studies. ‘They are equally as poised and full of pathos, and start from just several thousand pounds,’ says Alsteens. ‘That makes them a brilliant gateway to collecting.’