Exhibition Review

Delacroix (1798–1863). Musée du Louvre, Paris; A Modern Struggle: From Delacroix to the Present Day. Musée National Eugène Delacroix, Paris

The last few years have seen a remarkable upsurge in exhibitions and scholarly studies on Eugène Delacroix. In 2013–14, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish was shown at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, and in 2015–16 Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art was mounted by the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the National Gallery, London.1 Both exhibitions had a limited focus and, of course, a truly comprehensive survey of the whole of Delacroix’s career is only possible under the aegis of the Louvre. Its current offering, Delacroix (1798–1863),2 is the first major retrospective survey dedicated to the artist since the one organised by Maurice Sérullaz, also at the Louvre, in 1963.3

The rich variety of subject-matter and scale of Delacroix’s works would be a challenge for any curator, and Sébastian Allard and Côme Fabre are to be congratulated on the success of their arrangements in the Hall Napoléon. Certain pragmatic decisions have had to be made and three large paintings are not incorporated within the main show: The Entry of the crusaders into Constantinople (1840; cat. no.95) and the Death of Sardanapalus (1827; no.45) remain in the Salle Mollien of the first floor of the Denon pavilion. There they are accompanied by Christ in the garden of Olives (1826–27; no.115), recently restored and looking splendid, which has been temporarily rescued from being ‘skied’ in the Stygian gloom above the entrance to the chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Sept- Douleurs at St Paul-St Louis in the Marais. The restoration has revealed the subtle radiance of Christ’s head, and the trio of winsome yet poignant angels, the sleeping disciples and the Pharisees and Roman soldiers led by Judas are now far more legible.

The complete range of the output of this often contradictory and always elusive artist is presented in a mostly chronological manner. The show opens in familiar territory, with five large-scale Salon works from 1821–30: the Barque of Dante (no.6), Scenes from the massacres at Chios (no.12), Greece on the ruins of Missolonghi (no.71), the Battle of Nancy (no.49) and 28th July. Liberty leading the people (no.72) hang together in the first main room. Subsequent sections deal with the artist’s increasing involvement with state commissions for both independent works and official buildings and the visual harvest from his privileged trip to Morocco in 1832 (1833–54), and the final phase (1855–63), marked by his success at the Exposition Universelle, his acceptance as an Academician and his preoccupation with memory in smallscale works, often made to satisfy the demands of the art market.

Of the large-scale easel paintings, the only really notable absentees are the Battle of Taillebourg at Versailles, the Justice of Trajan at Rouen and the Sultan of Morocco in Toulouse. While an early sketch for the last is exhibited (no.73) –it includes the Comte de Mornay, who is absent in the final work — some explanation of the sketch’s status would have been welcome, as well as an illustration of the finished canvas.

Within this framework there are numerous suggestive groupings, mainly concerned with memory, the passage of time and the artist’s complicated creative process. Delacroix’s obsessive studies on the subject of Hamlet are revealed in a sequence of paintings, prints and sketches beginning as early as 1828. Although the ‘definitive’ version is probably that of 1839, where the pensive young Prince might be seen as a veiled self-portrait (no.143; Fig.14), Delacroix continued to return to the theme and a late sketch of 1859 shows Hamlet and Horatio accompanied by a torch-lit burial procession (no.145).

The cross-fertilisation between the artist’s decorative schemes and Salon works is strikingly demonstrated in St Sebastian from St Michel, Nantua (no.96). Purchased after the 1837 Salon, the almost life-size figure of the punctured saint is attended by the Holy Women, who are Christian versions of the allegorical females found on both the wall and ceiling panels of the Salle du Trône in the Palais Bourbon. Thoughtfully chosen sections on Delacroix’s ravishing flower and animal paintings and his studies of landscape also contribute to the comprehensive nature of the show. Works that seldom seem to travel are also included, notably the psychologically complex Cleopatra and the peasant (1838; Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill; no.104), in which the artist’s recent experience of North Africa enabled the characterisation of the Egyptian queen and her slave as richly clothed and bejewelled Orientals.

Smaller sections deal with Delacroix as a printmaker. Vitrines contain some of his sketchbooks, from both Paris and the Morocco trip, and the journals. The post-1847 journals are physically far more substantial than the earlier journal and are written in commercially produced, oblong household account books. It is fascinating to see how Delacroix pasted in clippings from books and newspapers – two excerpts from the Moniteur universel accompany the entries for 8th–9th January 1856 – as well as inserting pressed flowers from his Rue Furstenberg garden – a lobelia for 8th August 1859.

The curatorial principles behind the presentation of the show are clearly to let the works speak for themselves and to promote Delacroix as the supreme colourist, the painter of thoughts and ideas and the unparalleled interpreter of literature. Although this strategy has much to recommend it, it does seem a somewhat modest aim when dealing with an increasingly sophisticated and visually aware public. In one way or another many aspects of French daily life are still affected by the geo-political decisions made during Delacroix’s lifetime and, perhaps, with his support. Issues such as gender, race, civilisation and barbarism, Orientalism and the painter’s much disputed place in the French colonial project barely merit a mention in the captions for individual exhibits or in the explanatory texts that introduce each section. The Women of Algiers in their apartment (no.89; Fig.15), one of the most argued-over paintings in the whole of Delacroix’s oeuvre is presented with no suggestions as to why it has provoked such heated debate. Another opportunity for interrogating Delacroix’s enduring legacy came with 28th July. Liberty leading the people. Little attention is given to the picture’s political dimensions and its evolution into a national icon (not to mention its usage to promote the opening of the Louvre’s satellite at Lens in 2012). May 2018 also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the student uprising in Paris, when many improvised images of Liberty were produced and Caroline de Bendern posed for Jean-Pierre Rey’s iconic photograph La Marianne de Mai 68. Locating Liberty within this rich milieu might have further enriched the visitor’s experience.

Undoubtedly the show celebrates, confirms and consolidates Delacroix’s undisputed status as the major figure in French painting in the first half of the nineteenth century. For many people Delacroix has been an artist more admired than liked, but this very fine exhibition should place him on a par, at least in popular terms, with his more approachable and less visually demanding nineteenth-century successors. From the Louvre, the exhibition moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (17th September–6th January 2019). With so many of Delacroix’s key paintings too fragile to travel, a somewhat different emphasis and narrative will be necessary, but the artist’s multifaceted brilliance will undoubtedly ensure the visitor an equally stunning visual feast.

The Louvre exhibition could only touch on Delacroix’s considerable career as a decorative painter of religious and civic buildings and, of course, direct the visitor to his Apollo slays python (1850–51) three floors above. But an almost concurrent exhibition at the nearby Musée Delacroix acts as an introduction to and commentary on the artist’s newly restored cycle of works for his last decorative cycle at the church of St Sulpice, Paris, (completed 1861).4 The image of the ‘struggle’ of the painterly process had been introduced by the artist himself right at the start of his career and at St Sulpice he wrote of the problems encountered when painting at the church. These ‘struggles’ concerned not only the accomplishment of satisfying compositional solutions for the three scenes – St Michael defeats the Devil; Heliodorus driven from the Temple and Jacob wrestling with the Angel (Fig.16) – but also conquering the physical challenge of painting directly onto the two side walls (Jacob and Heliodorus) in the demanding oil and wax medium Delacroix preferred to use for the decoration of walls.

The Musée Delacroix exhibition provides a very full examination of Delacroix’s possible sources and also, very astutely, associates the St Sulpice works with his late-inlife concern regarding his place in posterity and with measuring himself against the great masters of the past – in this instance Raphael, Titian and Rubens. The subsequent influence of the St Sulpice murals on Gauguin, Maurice Denis and Chagall is also examined. The exhibition serves as an excellent prelude to visiting the church itself, ten minutes’ walk away. Delacroix was never an accomplished technician in either oil or in the oil and wax medium, and his St Sulpice murals have needed some form of intervention from conservators every thirty to forty years. This latest campaign, under the leadership of Alina Mostkalil Detalle, is the most comprehensive yet undertaken and has yielded such spectacular results that one can almost speak of a rebirth of the cycle. The revelation of the flochetage (flossing) is now especially apparent in the lower portion of Heliodorus, the bubbling spring in the foreground of Jacob has become wholly legible and the multi-coloured armour of St Michael is far more distinct. Although sometimes characterised as Delacroix’s ‘final testament’, he did hope to work on other schemes with his assistant Pierre Andrieu. Fate then intervened, but now more than ever, the St Sulpice murals stand indisputably as some of the most powerful biblical scenes from the nineteenth century.

1 The catalogue to the former exhibition was  reviewed by Stephen Duffy in this Magazine,  157 (2015), p.277; the latter exhibition was  reviewed by the present writer in this  Magazine, 158 (2016), pp.376–78. 

2 Catalogue: Delacroix (1798–1863). By Sébastien  Allard and Côme Fabre. 480 pp. incl. 250  ills. (Hazan and Editions du Musée du Louvre,  Paris, 2018), €45. ISBN 978–2–7541–1443–1. 

3 See L. Johnson: ‘The Delacroix centenary  in France – 1’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 105  (1963), pp.294, 297–303 and 305; and idem:  ‘The Delacroix centenary in France – 2’, THE  BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 106 (1965), pp.259–65,  267 and 271. 

4 Catalogue: Une lutte moderne, de Delacroix  à nos jours. Edited by Dominique de Font-  Réaulx and Marie Monfort, with essays by  Stéphane Guégan, Thierry Laugier, Alina  Moskalik-Detalle, Paul Perrin and Valérie  Sueur. 192 pp. incl. 220 col. ills. (Le passage  and Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2018), €28. ISBN  978–2–84742–384–6.