To a twenty-first century audience, Eugène Delacroix embodies French Romanticism, but beyond that, he epitomises a seismic shift from the grand European tradition to modern painting. Delacroix was a fierce individualist who rejected the neo-classical tradition of Ingres (1780–1867) and Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) in his search for a personal style. His wild brushwork and compositional inventiveness endow his works with a tenebrous emotional intensity. He experimented with color theory and is known to have invented flochetage, an interweaving of complementary colors that influenced colorists such as Odilon Redon (1840–1916) and Henri Matisse (1869–1954). He tackled a wide range of subject-matter including religious, orientalist and literary subjects as well as portraits and still lifes.
In October 1815, Delacroix joined the studio of Pierre Guérin, where he became a close friend of Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). He complemented his education with visits to the Louvre, studying and copying masters such as Raphael (1483–1520), Titian (1490–1576), Veronese (1528–88) and Rubens (1577–1640). Delacroix experienced early fame, which he cemented during the 1827 Salon when he exhibited the monumental Death of Sardanapalus (1827) inspired by Lord Byron’s (1788–1824) tragedy Sardanapalus (1821). It became an instant icon of Romanticism; influenced by Rubens, the painting’s focus on the materiality of paint was the antithesis of Neo-classicism. It was followed in 1831 by his perhaps most famous work, Liberty Leading the People (1831), an allegory of the July 1830 uprising. It represented a contemporary event with the grandeur of history painting, a concept with which he had already developed with his Massacre at Chios (1824), depicting an episode of the Greek War of Independence. From the 1830s until the end of his life he received state commissions for numerous murals throughout Paris, most famously a chapel in the church of Saint Sulpice (1849-61), a particularly clear example of his flochetage. Known as his ‘last masterpiece’, it played a central role in building his legacy among colourists.
Delacroix was a passionate orientalist, whose travels to North Africa in 1832 had a lifelong impact on his work. But where later artists like Gérôme (1824-1904) exoticized their subjects, Delacroix is always more sympathetic to the Arab world. He produced countless drawings and watercolors, many of which were translated into oil paintings throughout his career, such as his Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834 and 1849) famously inspiring Picasso’s series Les Femmes d’Alger (1954–55). It also led to his series of hunting scenes, such as the Lion Hunt (1860/61, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago), displaying violent battles between animal and man, evidencing his desire to illustrate primitive conflict. These sketches are particularly useful to understanding the dominant role that draughtsmanship played in his compositional and technical experimentations. His romanticist sensibilities, however, extended beyond the experiential and are evident in his passion for literature. For instance, he produced lithographs illustrating the tortured souls in Shakespeare’s plays and Lord Byron’s writings. These also demonstrate his Anglophilia, which is clear from his portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826), an homage to Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), as well as in his self-portrait (ca. 1822, musée du Louvre) as Ravenswood, the tormented character from Walter Scott’s (1771–1832) Bride of Lammermoor (1819).
Top Auctions Results for Eugène Delacroix
Tigre jouant avec une tortue
Sold for $9,875,000
New York, Christie’s, 8 May 2018, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: 19th and 20th Century Art, Evening Sale, lot 3
Choc de cavaliers Arabes
Sold for 46,500,000 FF ($7,762,290)
Paris, Piasa, 19 June 1998, Importants Tableaux et Sculptures des XIXe et XX e siècles, lot 28
Sold for $5,500,000
New York, Christie’s, 14 November 1989, Impressionist and Modern Paintings & Sculpture, I, lot 31