Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art: From the Louvre to the National Gallery, the great Romantic's art lives through fictions

By Mark Sheerin | 15 February 2016

The National Gallery's new exhibition on the influential, controversial 19th century painter borrows from the Louvre and the Petit Palais in the first retrospective of the artist's work for decades

A photo of a saint being treated within a forest, created by the artist Gustave Moreau
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus (reduced replica) (1846). Oil on canvas© Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
A Paris church dating back to the 13th century is the last place you would expect to be shocked by modern art. But there it surely is, a trompe l’oeil ceiling where - on the drapery of Saint Michael - the colour orange wrestles with yellow and green, just as the saint himself tackles a demon. Both shades heighten the immediacy of the drama. And this scientific approach to colour is not the work of a pointillist, a divisionist or a fauve; it is an 1861 mural by Eugène Delacroix.

created by French artist Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne, Apotheosis of Delacroix (1890-1894). Oil on canvas© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
It was this writer’s good fortune to climb several scaffolding ladders to get a close up look at this battle for new ideas; restorers are about half way through a year long project to return this Chapel of the Holy Angels to the colourful glory of its heyday. Up by the ceiling, one can only marvel at the control Delacroix exercised, a special effect that would work nine metres above the ground. On either side of the dome are a further pair of extensive murals.

created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Vincent Van Gogh, Pietà (after Delacroix) (1889)© Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam
Jacob fights his angel; Heliodorus is driven from the temple; and both scenes also shock you with counter-intuitive use of colour highlights and dynamic compositions which liberate the eye from any central point of concern. Jacob’s fight is dominated by three naturalistic trees which have nothing to do with the Biblical story. Heliodorus’ fate is sealed by outrageous conflagration of horse and rider, airborne youths with birch whips, and a gratuitous, sensuous golden light.

An image of a painting of a stricken figure created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, St Stephen borne away by his Disciples (1862). Oil on canvas© The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
The murals are in Saint-Sulpice, the city’s second largest church after Notre Dame. The chapel took Delacroix 12 years to complete. But his experimental colour, inventive composition and, given we are in a Catholic church, relatively original subject matter, provide all the groundwork for the artistic modernity which was to spring up in Paris and sweep the world.

An image of a self-portrait in oil created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, Self Portrait (circa 1837). Oil on canvas© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Poet Baudelaire, who incidentally was baptised at Saint-Sulpice, was a friend, critic and admirer of Delacroix. Monet was a fan, even a prototypical groupie who staked out the older painter’s studio. Cézanne owed him a debt, and Picasso paid him a famous tribute, of which more later. The story and the scandal of modern art would have been very different were it not for the contribution of a 19th century figure so well established he became the go-to guy for public commissions, with an especially strong line in ceilings.

created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour, Immortality (1889). Oil on canvas© Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Two more of these are nearby: one in the Palais du Luxembourg and another in the Louvre. The former, in the library of the French Sénat, displays the painter’s passionate fondness for literature. Its theme is Dante’s Divine Comedy and it is thought that Delacroix has included a self portrait as the Italian poet’s guide, Virgil. Just as the grand commission took the form of a secular text rather than classical myth or the Bible, the landscape will be familiar to those who know North Africa, as the painter disrupts convention at every turn.

An image of a painting formed into a cross shape created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, Apollo Slaying Python, Preliminary Sketch (circa 1850). Oil on paper laid down on canvas© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Look up at the vault of the Gallerie d’Apollon in the Louvre and you will find just as much invention. This commission gave Delacroix the opportunity to show Apollo slaying a python. The result is a battle royal in the heavens where even the putti have taken up arms. Once again the colours are rich, overwhelmingly so, and the formal arrangement both fluid and complex. You get the clearest impression that classical realism is, along with that prehistoric looking snake, in its final throes. “Art, like poetry, lives through fictions,” wrote Delacroix in his remarkable journals.

An image of a painting of various figures in a forest created by French artist Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne, The Battle of Love (circa 1880). Oil on canvas© Courtesy Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Given that he spent some eight more years on these two additional ceilings, it is remarkable that the painter found any time to work on canvas. But here you find a suite of his masterpieces, side by side with that other great romantic Géricault, one of which has become as iconic as the Mona Lisa in its way. This is Liberty Leading the People of 1830 in which, notably, a woman and child lead the way to liberty, equality and fraternity. It is a history painting in its loosest sense, based on a fairly futile revolution in 1830 which merely saw King Charles replaced by King Louis-Philippe.

created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, Bathers (1854). Oil on canvas© Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut
Another treasure of the Louvre is one of two painted versions of The Women of Algiers. This too displays a bit of voguish orientalist, but remains a painting about real women who lounge around and smoke. The Three Graces, they are not. Picasso was so taken with this work that he made a series of works based upon it. In his fascinating biography of the Spanish painter, Patrick O’Brian reports “nothing in the least slavish about Picasso’s admiration for Delacroix”, even if the inventor of cubism still wondered what Delacroix might have said had he walked into his own studio in mid-painting session. Along with El Greco, Velasquez, Poussin and Courbet, Delacroix proved one of Picasso’s most enduring art historical roots.

An image of a painting of the crucifixion created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, Christ on the Cross (1853). Oil on canvas© The National Gallery, London
But we should not be surprised. The great Romantic of the 19th century was, as Baudelaire once wrote, “a volcanic crater artistically concealed behind bouquets of flowers”. (Picasso was perhaps a volcano minus the flowers.) When you consider the inventions Delacroix brought to painting, it is a surprise to find his modest and respectable studio space on Rue de Furstenberg. Well appointed, south facing, centrally located, with an orderly garden, it is a beautiful setting.

A photo of a busy courtyard scene in Tangier created by French artist Eugène Delacroix
Eugène Delacroix, Convulsionists of Tangier (1837-1838). Oil on canvas© The Minneapolis Institute of Art
By the time he moved here Delacroix was one of the most successful painters in Paris and it is a thoroughly respectable venue for a thoroughly inventive mode of working. His break with tradition was subtle enough to please his contemporaries, and radical enough to keep him interesting today.

  • Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art is at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing from February 17 – May 22 2016. Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission £8-£16 (free for under-12s). A book, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, is available from the National Gallery.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter @criticismism.
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