Journal of Eugene Delacroix, November 30, 1853; Pach translation
Thus wrote Delacroix, aged fifty-five, characterizing his state of mind as a mature human being and artist. Internationally renowned, medaled, and financially independent, the practice of art was no longer a necessity but a labor of love—lucrative, to be sure, but self-satisfying and all absorbing. It is this Delacroix—mature and apparently serene and dispassionate—who has become better known and more clearly defined through the recent exhibition and catalogue Delacroix: The Late Work.
The exhibition was one of several that marked the bicentennial of the birth of the artist in 1798, and the only one that was seen in this country. Organized jointly by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it comprised some one hundred and fifty paintings, drawings, and watercolors dating from about 1850 to the artist’s death in 1863.
After having made a reputation for himself in the 1820s, with a succession of “grandes machines” exhibited at the Salons of 1822, 1824, and 1828 (Barque of Dante, Massacre of Chios, Death of Sardanapalus), Delacroix, in the 1830s and 1840s, received commissions for a series of large-scale decorative projects at the Palais Bourbon, the Luxembourg Palace, and the Louvre. By 1851, having finished the monumental Apollo ceiling in the Louvre, he gradually abandoned mural painting and focused increasingly on medium-size easel pictures. This turn to smaller canvases has been attributed both to practical reasons (market demands as well as the artist’s diminished energy) and to the artist’s withdrawal from the public art world into a private world of intense artistic quest.
The purpose of Delacroix: The Late Work was to highlight this last phase of the artist’s career, which thus far had received little attention. Indeed, one might say that, like other nineteenth-century artists (most notably Courbet, whose late work, coincidentally, is featured in a current exhibition in Lausanne and Stockholm), Delacroix had “suffered” from an over-emphasis on his early Salon machines at the expense of the neglect of the works of his final years.
One of the most salient features of Delacroix’s late work is its thematic variety. A number of new genres—hunts, landscapes, and still lifes—were added to his earlier repertoire, which had been composed almost exclusively of paintings based on history, literature, mythology, and Orientalist scenes inspired by his trip to Morocco in 1832. Moreover, religious painting, though practiced by the artist since the beginning of his career, took on a new and different importance as modest-size paintings of a private devotional nature replaced the large-scale murals and altarpieces of his earlier days.
The organizers of the exhibition chose to emphasize the varied aspect of the artist’s late work by grouping the works by subject categories. While this made it difficult to see some important formal linkages—for example, between the sea studies and some of the history or religious paintings set by or on the sea (Demosthenes Declaiming by the Seashore; Christ on the Sea of Galilee), it did illuminate certain facets of the artist’s oeuvre that helped the viewer to form a more complete picture of his artistic reach. Most notably, the impressive group of religious paintings and drawings focused largely on the life and passion of Christ went a long way to confirm Vincent van Gogh’s claim that Delacroix was one of the great religious artists of all times. He certainly surpassed most nineteenth-century artists in the depth of feeling that he imparted to his religious scenes.
I was fortunate to see the exhibition in Philadelphia, where the works, hung in relatively small spaces and sensitively lit, apparently looked better than in the Grand Palais. There the huge, high-ceilinged rooms and stark spotlights, I was told, did a bit of an injustice to Delacroix’s late paintings that were intended to be hung in bourgeois apartments, lit by diffused daylight or, at night, by oil lamps and candles. Indeed, when viewing the exhibition, it was important to keep in mind that (with the exception of the fragmentarily preserved hunting scene from Bordeaux, commissioned by the government in 1855), most of Delacroix’s late works, even the religious paintings, were intended for private collectors. This connection with a bourgeois market explains the precious quality of many of the works, which were made to delight amateurs with their exquisite detail and masterful facture—a form of finish quite distinct from the licked fini of his rival Ingres. It also explains the presence in the exhibition of several groups of different versions of the same work for which apparently there was a collectors’ demand. The three replicas of the Bride of Abydos and the no less than six versions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee clearly illustrate this point. However, in their mutual differences they also demonstrate that, unlike other nineteenth-century artists who made replicas of their paintings on collector demand, Delacroix used the opportunity to experiment with varying color schemes, kinds of facture, as well as compositions. This is especially clear in the Christ on the Sea of Galilee paintings, which function less like replicas than as a series of variations on a given theme.
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is a valuable contribution to Delacroix scholarship. It includes essays on the relation of the late to the early work (Lee Johnson); on Delacroix as seen by his contemporaries (Arlette Sérullaz); on Delacroix and the market, both in France (Vincent Pomaréde) and America (Joseph Rishel); and on the artist’s technique (David Liot). The catalogue section is extensive, with introductory essays to the various subject categories and detailed entries on each painting, watercolor, and drawing. A fascinating appendix to the catalogue provides the provenance, bibliography, and exhibition history for each painting.
The catalogue contains much new information regarding Delacroix’s career and daily life (including his relations to dealers, suppliers, and collectors), which was gleaned from a substantial group of notebooks and papers by the artist that have recently come to light. Formerly in possession of Achille Piron, Delacroix’s testamentary executor, these archival materials were sold at auction in December 1997 and bought in large part by the French state. In particular, Pomaréde’s fascinating essay on “The State, Collectors, and Dealers” is heavily based on these newly found materials and contains fascinating details on Delacroix’s marketing strategies.
All in all Delacroix: The Late Work was a model monographic exhibition, aimed at revisiting a well-known artist and presenting him in a new light. The grouping of the works by categories focused the attention of Delacroix’s preoccupation with the diversification of his oeuvre. The gathering together of numerous versions of the same subject made viewers aware of the public demand for several of his compositions and of the artist’s own continuous interest in artistic experimentation. The impressive group of religious paintings marked him as one of the great religious artists of the nineteenth century.
Petra ten-Dosschate Chu
Department of Art and Music, Seton Hall University
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