Eugène Delacroix was born on 26 April 1798 at Charenton-Saint-Maurice. His father, Charles, was Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Directory and then the imperial Préfet in Marseilles and Bordeaux, and his mother Victoire Oeben was the daughter of the famous cabinetmaker of Louis XVI. After Charles died in Bordeaux in 1806, the family moved to Paris, where Eugène enrolled at the Lycée Imperial. In October 1815 he started to attend the studio of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin and two years later he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he became friends with Géricault. His first public commission came in 1819, when he painted the Virgin and Child, inspired by Raphael, for the parish church of Orcemont. The following year he executed the Madonna of the Sacred Heart for the bishop’s palace in Nantes. In the 1822 Salon he exhibited Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx (or: The Barque of Dante), which he had painted in just three months. Something of a habitué on the social scene, he made friends with the English painter Fielding, with whom he shared a studio in rue Jacob. He exhibited Massacres at Chios and Tasso Imprisoned in the Madhouse at Ferrara at the 1824 Salon, in 1826 he painted Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi and in 1827 he participated in the Salon with a number of paintings, including The Death of Sardanapalus, which caused a great outcry. In 1830 he painted Liberty Leading the People, which would later be shown at the 1831 Salon. In September he was awarded the Légion d’honneur. The following year he accompanied the Comte de Mornay, Louis-Philippe’s ambassador, to Morocco. He also visited Tunisia and Spain before returning to Paris in July. In 1833 he was commissioned to paint the Salon du Roi in the Palais-Bourbon, which kept him occupied until 1836. In 1839 he made a trip to Holland and Belgium in the company of Elise Boulanger. The following year he received two important commissions: the Pietà for the church of Saint-Denis-du-Saint-Sacrament and the decoration of the Musée du Luxembourg. A serious attack of laryngitis in 1842 forced him to undergo extensive treatment, which he alternated with visits to stay with his friends Riesener and George Sand. It did not, however, slow down his artistic output, and he continued to work busily on a series of lithographs for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the decoration of the Chamber of Deputies. In 1850 he was awarded the commission to paint the ceiling of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, followed by paintings in the Hôtel de la Ville. He published a work on Nicolas Poussin in 1852 and two years later a book entitled Questions sur le beau. In May 1855 he exhibited forty-two paintings at the Exposition Universelle. He was admitted as a member of the Institut in 1857 and decided to write a Dictionnaire des Beaux-Arts. In the same year he moved to 6 Place de Furstenberg, which today houses the Musèe Delacroix. In 1859 he participated in his last Salon with thirty-four works and in 1861 he managed to complete the mural paintings at Saint-Sulpice. He died in Paris on 13 August 1863.
Dante and Virgil Crossing the Styx (or: Barque of Dante)
With this painting, exhibited at the 1822 Salon, Delacroix made his mark on the Parisian public and expressed a great intensity and sense of movement. One very important influence was the Raft of the Medusa, completed shortly beforehand by his friend Géricault and characterised by sharp shafts of light and a complex tension-packed composition. Delacroix added some touches that indicated a particular attention towards the work of Michelangelo, as can be seen in the vigorous shaping of the bodies of the damned, while the maelstrom colour effects are reminiscent of Rubens. Although the critical response was sceptical and Delécluze described the work as “a daub”, artists grasped the innovative nature of the style and Antoine Gros even talked of a “castigated Rubens”. The painting was purchased for the Musée du Luxembourg and the artist’s reputation was definitively established.
Orphan Girl in the Cemetery
This work was one of a number of preparatory studies for the composition of Massacres at Chios, and they were exhibited together at the Salon in 1824. Following his success at the Salon two years previously, Delacroix wanted to paint a very expressive work. The war between the Turks and Greeks in 1820, and the terrible massacres that ensued on the island of Chios, provided him with his theme. This orphan girl, who then became the subject of an autonomous work, was the origin of the young figure pleading for help on the left-hand side of Massacres. Delacroix carefully researched the features and dress of the inhabitants of Chios, reproducing the distinctive colouring of their complexion. The natural expressions reveal the artist’s desire to involve the viewer emotionally.
Massacres at Chios
As had happened with Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, the impact of a real event provided the background for the execution of a work whose dramatic content made a big impression on the public. Delacroix carefully studied accounts of this massacre carried out by the Turks, at the end of which there were just nine hundred Greek survivors on the island of Chios. Once again it was his friend Géricault who inspired the charged atmosphere and the sense of pain of the figures – from the lifeless figures in the foreground to the desperate bodily gestures in the upper register and the restive horse of the Turkish slaughterer.
Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi
In 1826 Delacroix began to frequent the coterie of Romantic artists dominated by Victor Hugo, but rather than concentrating on an introspective and melancholic vision of the world, he continued to focus on historic events and closely followed the Greek struggle for independence. In the same year Missolonghi fell once again under the Turkish yoke and an exhibition was organised at the Galerie Lebrun in Paris in support of the Greeks. Delacroix contributed a number of canvases, although only the Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha was related to the events. In August he substituted some of the paintings with Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, a large-scale allegory narrating how the inhabitants of the city sacrificed themselves under cannon fire in 1825 rather than surrender to the Turks.
The Death of Sardanapalus
Delacroix exhibited thirteen paintings of various genres at the 1827 Salon, demonstrating his mastery of portraiture, landscapes and still lifes in addition to his religious, literary and of course historical subjects. The highpoint is this canvas dedicated to an event from ancient history, The Death of Sardanapalus. Narrative sources indicate it was an act of incredible cruelty: the king decided his whole court had to die together with him and so he ordered his slaves to kill the women, pages and even the horses, while the palace and all its riches were to burn together with him. From the dark background of the shadows there emerge the luminous bodies of the victims in a dramatic vortex of violence and suffering. What the artist defined as “massacre number two” was received coldly by the critics, who detected suggestions of scandalous orgiastic practices in the poses.
Liberty Leading the People
Delacroix was not involved in French politics and sustained that refined, civilised individuals did not speak of such matters. However, the events in 1830 forced him to assume a stance. The suspension of constitutional liberty by Charles X in July of that year led to a popular insurrection. Delacroix did not take up arms as Daumier and other artists did, but walked around Paris observing the revolt. Based on the three colours of the French flag – white, red, and blue –, this composition combines realistic elements, for instance the bodies in the foreground and the combatants (including the artist himself in a top hat), and the classical allegorical figure of Liberty in an attempt to create a kind of manifesto of the ideals of the revolt. Once again the viewing public at the Salon (1831) were shocked by the violence of the clashes and the ‘undignified’ crudeness of the dead.
At Meknès. Mellah and Sidi Said
The Orient exercised a powerful fascination in the Romantic period, stimulating new fantasies in the sphere of culture. In 1831 King Louis-Philippe sent a delegation to meet the Sultan of Morocco, and as often occurred on these occasions, a painter was asked to accompany the group to document the trip. Delacroix was chosen and in January 1832 he arrived in Tangiers. In the course of the 3-month journey, he filled seven sketch books and a large album, the so-called Moroccan Notebooks, with eighteen watercolours, from which these pages are drawn. He was struck by all aspects of the life there and tried to depict as much as possible of this mysterious and “ancient” people, as he defined them. However, in his notes he complained of people’s diffidence and reluctance about being sketched or painted.
Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Delacroix returned to Paris from his journey to North Africa in July 1832 with a wealth of memorable images. He started work straightaway on trying to recreate the atmosphere of the Orient in his studio. One of the most surprising results is this picture of the Women of Algiers, the highlight of the Salon in 1834. Critics such as Théophile Gautier and Etienne Délecluze were fascinated by the refined shades of the colourful fabrics and the matching tones. Years later Charles Baudelaire defined the painting as a “small poem of interiors” because of the sense of intimate quiet it emanates and the olfactory perception of this location of ill repute.
Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople
Commissioned by Louis-Philippe and exhibited at the Salon in 1841, this work came with an explanatory caption: “Capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders. 1204. Balwin VI of Flanders was in command of the French, who attacked from the land, while the elderly Doge Dandolo, commander of the Venetians, attacked the port. The first commanders ran through the quarters of the city, and families in tears came towards them pleading for clemency”. The historical theme had suggested to Delacroix the use of certain formal solutions adopted by the Venetian Masters, in particular Veronese, whose work is recalled in the brilliant use of colour. The breadth of the expressive range of the figures once again creates a great sense of immediacy, capable of moving the viewer like a theatrical scene.
Sultan of Morocco and his Retinue
Presented at the Salon in 1845, the painting depicts Muley-abd-err-Rahmann, the Sultan of Morocco, leaving the Palace of Meknès with his retinue, including the ministers Muchtar and Amin-Bias, who are on the right. Here Delacroix recreates an audience ceremony, which he had witnessed in 1832 when he had been sent to North Africa as part of a diplomatic mission. Against the imposing background of the walls the artist stages the scene of the ceremony, the solemnity of which suggests it was static and silent. There is a prevalence of ochre and red tones suggestive of the hot African light and there is a broad and luminous sky
Jewish Musicians of Mogador
The many sketches Delacroix made in his notebooks during his journey along the North African coastline formed the basis for works like this one, which were reconstructed from memory many years after his return to France. Besides the Oriental aspects of the work, the artist included a genre observation in his depiction of an instance of local life, a “tranche de vie”, in which the characters are captured in their natural, everyday poses. The dark background is broken by a beam of light shining on the exhausted woman resting her head on her arm. There is none of the atmosphere and detail that had characterised works like the Women of Algiers, as if the raw emotions of these places were now rather distant.
The lion hunting theme was not new for Delacroix. He had already executed a work on this subject – a recurrent theme in his artistic maturity – in 1855, which had drawn a certain amount of criticism in that year’s Salon due to the extraordinary convulsion of forms and colours. Here the action occupies a broader space in which a large horse (reminiscent of works by Géricault) is brought down by the ferocity of the lion, who in turn is struck by the lance of the Moor. The violent movements, dark colours and deep red lightning generate seething forms and lights. The landscape in the background is very gloomy, an indication of Delacroix’s tendency, having achieved artistic glory, to isolate himself from Parisian social circles in order to find in painting the meaning of life.