An artist’s true colors.
by Sherry Camhy | November 20, 2018
Nearing the end of his life, Eugène Delacroix expressed a wish to know how his work would be thought of in a hundred year’s time. He would be delighted to learn that one hundred and fifty years after his death, his work has been exhibited at the Louvre, at Jill Newhouse (his first gallery show in New York), and in two exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix and Delacroix. Together these exhibitions signify not only an enduring but expanding interest in his work.
The Metropolitan Museum’s two shows are comprehensive, comprising 120 drawings and 155 paintings that together offer an enlightening display of Delacroix’s oeuvre. On view are rare works never before seen in the United States.
The curators enriched both exhibitions with didactic panels that included thumbnail reproductions of related drawings and paintings, offering fresh insights into Delacroix’s process. The wall texts offer details about Delacroix’s era that help modern viewers interpret the images in their historical context.
Devotion to Drawing was first to open and gave center stage to the artist’s works on paper. Two months later a companion exhibition, Delacroix, opened, and the sheer number, monumental size, brilliant color, and utter grandeur of its paintings largely overshadowed the drawings. But the drawings, perhaps quieter and more easily overlooked, have so much to offer.
Delacroix, acclaimed as a great painter during his lifetime, kept his devotion to drawing private. Only after his death, with the surprising discovery of more than 6,000 drawings tucked away in his Rue Furstenberg atelier, did he become recognized as a great draftsman. In his Journals, published posthumously in 1893, he noted, “Color always occupies me but drawing preoccupies me.”
The exhibition’s curators have grouped Delacroix’s works thematically within an overarching chronology of his life. The exhibition presents examples reflecting his early education, his exploration of alternatives to the rational objective values of neoclassicism, and finally his attraction to romanticism and its emotionally-driven, sensational subjects and dramatic compositions, which rely more on a suggestive style and expressive color than on precise draughtsmanship.
Delacroix’s artistic development is not easily classified into “isms.” He pushed past all boundaries declaring, “I am a pure Classicist,” yet he produced some of the most turbulent and emotional works of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Devotion to Drawing demonstrates Delacroix’s preference for simple, non-commercially manufactured mediums and surfaces: charcoal; red, black, blue, and white chalk; graphite; fabricated black crayon; black and iron gall inks; diluted white gouache; watercolor; “body color” pigments with gum arabic; pastel applied directly or with pen and brush on tracing, writing, wove, or laid paper, toned blue but now faded to green. Delacroix’s images on tracing paper demonstrate its use as a tool to refine his skills and his ideas. First thoughts, premières pensées, are “the germ [that]…every work [would] ultimately possess,” as well as a valuable record of the paths not taken.
The first image in the drawing exhibition is Academic Male Nude with Staff (1817–22), (recto), an example of Delacroix’s early struggle to assimilate the traditional life drawing methods expected in the Salle du Modèle of the École des Beaux-Arts. On the front of the paper (recto), he used painstakingly careful charcoal shading to depict anatomical shapes. Delacroix’s drawing on the back of this paper (verso) shows a slightly different view of the model in the same pose in a style of line more typical of his later drawings.
Both of these drawings look eerily familiar. The classical life drawing techniques used by Delacroix are still to be found in art schools, like the Art Students League of New York, where similar poses, mediums, and “form” lighting (a single source of light from above and to one side) remain in practice. It is interesting to note a growing trend for schools primarily focused on abstract, conceptual, and digital art to add classically-based life drawing classes to their curriculum.
Delacroix’s professional art education began at 17, when he was enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts where a reverence for neoclassicism’s concepts of detailed objective observation, knowledge, contour, form, idealized beauty, and restraint and reason reigned supreme. With unceasing perseverance, Delacroix learned the basic underpinnings of his future work. Once those skills were firmly established and he became entrenched in neoclassicism, Delacroix leaped, shifting paths, becoming a leader of romanticism.
As a student, Delacroix’s studies started with tracing Old Master images, copying them freehand and then drawing from casts, models, anatomy diagrams, and dissections as well as from examples of écorché. Ecorché is a type of dissection in which the skin is removed, allowing clear observation of the superficial muscle structure directly below. It is a flayed anatomical specimen. Écorché: Torso of a Male Cadaver (1828) is drawn in red, black, and white fabricated chalk and graphite. Reverse écorché studies use clay to layer muscles, one by one, onto a constructed skeletal structure.
Delacroix filled his personal sketchbooks with images of horses, lions, tigers, and people in action, details of clothing, textures, plants, locations and landscapes derived from observation, storing what he saw in his memory in order to incorporate a sense of reality to the images derived from his imagination. To Delacroix there were “three crucial elements to art—the observed, the remembered, and the imagined.”
Crouching Tiger (1839) is not restricted by the need for time-consuming observation of detail. Delacroix was able to quickly capture his subject in the moment. His tiger is alive. It is paused and about to pounce. Delacroix offers us this insight: “If you are not skillful enough to sketch a man falling out of a window during the time it takes him to get from the fifth story to the ground then you will never be able to produce monumental work…Before you begin, study unceasingly, but once started…you must execute freely.”
Normandy Sketchbook (1829) consists of thirty-nine leaves containing thirty-eight drawings in graphite, opened to an exquisite portrait and the sketchbook’s single watercolor, a castle created en plein air.
Delacroix adopted use of watercolor for en plein air sketches he found popular in London and brought the process home with him. He advised, “Learn to draw…and in returning from travel, you will carry with your memories. . .That simple mark of the pencil. . . recalls, along with the place that struck you, all the associations connected with it . . . a thousand delicious impressions.”
Seated and Standing Male Nudes, after Photographs by Eugène Durieu (1855) testifies to Delacroix’s surprisingly early use of photo reference. He was one of the first but warned: “Nature is a vast dictionary. Painters who follow their imagination seek in the dictionary the elements which will accommodate their conception…. Those who have no imagination copy the dictionary.”
Appearing in both exhibition catalogues is Delacroix’s Sunset, a pastel of 1850, one of hundreds he made. The medium was rather out of fashion at the time, but eventually Degas and other impressionists began to use it more. Delacroix gravitated toward pastel because, as it explained, “it can be left, resumed, retouched and finished at will.”
Looking at Delacroix’s drawings, it is challenging to identify how artists of the past, like DaVinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, John Constable, or Richard Parkes Bonnington, influenced his work, and alternatively how Delacroix’s work influenced the impressionists, surrealists, abstract expressionists, conceptual artists, and even illustrators who followed.
In his day, Delacroix may not have had many students, but he did have critics and many more admirers. Ingres, his neoclassicist archrival, declared Delacroix’s work ”pornographic.” Baudelaire, a prominent art critic, exalted Delacroix as “the most original painter of ancient and modern times…a poet of painting.” Delacroix influenced many who followed. Paul Cézanne believed, “We all paint in his language.” Vincent van Gogh made copies of his paintings. Edgar Degas owned 250 of Delacroix’s works.
If Delacroix could look down on the contemporary art world now, he might be shocked to learn that a woman had recently scrawled graffiti on his Liberty Leading the People. He might chuckle at reading the New Yorker magazine critic Peter Schjeldahl who called him a “show off,” or the New York Times critic Roberta Smith who declared him “a precocious prophet of the modern age.” Pablo Picasso’s words, however, will continue to echo through the ages. “Delacroix, that bastard. He’s really good.”
Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix and Delacroix was on view from July 17 through November 12, 2018. Delacroix, which opened on September 17, continues through January 6, 2019.