Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to express it as clearly as possible.
If you haven’t enough skill to sketch a man throwing himself out of a window in the time it takes him to fall from the fourth floor to the ground then you will never be able to create a monumental painting.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), artist, scholar and diplomat, was a hero to the painter-writer Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). The reasons aren’t immediately obvious. Delacroix was solitary, asexual and possibly a bit of a hysteric (you have to be to be a Romantic) whereas the gregarious Rubens lived well and enjoyed all the pleasures of the flesh, especially where plus-size women were concerned. What both men had in common was a love of painting, and a flair for rendering flesh (although Delacroix seemed to prefer thatof muscular young men and/ or horses rearing).
Delacroix was self-conscious about his place in art history and wanted to be the Rubens of his age. Thus it’s appropriate that the new exhibition of his work at the National Gallery (co-organised by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota) treads faithfully in the footsteps of the Royal Academy’s major Rubens show from last year.
Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne (RA 24th January–10th April 2015) wasn’t the worst exhibition in living memory, only the most laughable. In theory it should have worked: the show was meant to demonstrate how Rubens influenced four centuries of painters, and thus prove his importance in the history of art. The essays in the catalogue made a fairly convincing case – the problem was that the exhibition itself was a failure. It made little sense even if you followed along with the book, for a simple reason: the selection of pictures seemed so random.
There were a few decent paintings by various later artists (notably Boucher and Delacroix). But it was hard to see how Rubens influenced them when there were only six proper Rubens paintings in the show. To get some idea of the range and quality of his work it made more sense to skip the exhibition and go to Room 29 of the National Gallery where you could see all the Rubens you wanted for free. Evidently the curators were in a desperate scramble to cover the walls with anything and everything they could possibly find that either potentially had something to do with Rubens or else that they could successfully bullshit about – works by Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, the Chapman brothers – even some cheap misshapen porcelain from the 17th century decorated with an image badly plagiarised from Rubens – and they still couldn’t fill the galleries.
There were seven rooms to fill in the exhibition; after the fourth one was more or less full the curators said ‘fuck this’ and gave up even pretending to do their job. The highlight of Rubens and His Legacy was a long wooden tunnel leading from the fourth to the sixth room, thus bypassing an entire chamber of unfillable exhibition space. Architecturally the structure seemed to have been influenced by the laser-tag arena at ‘Quasar’ in Hemel Hempstead (if not the more recent ‘Adrenalin Rush Laser Combat’ in Chiswick). Certainly it made one want to go shoot the curators with something more than a green light. After all, they made it difficult to walk out of Burlington House not feeling pissed off and hating Rubens.
The National Gallery’s Delacroix show ought to have the same effect on anybody paying full price for a ticket. A shame because Delacroix was a genuinely great painter. Or could be, anyway. As an artist his great innovation was to emphasise the importance of memory, which could help a painter represent the truth far more effectively than mere observation could. The logic of this insight was admittedly a little vague but people bought the idea, whatever it was.
As a painter Delacroix rejected neo-classical conventions, or tried to, and thought hard about new ways of representing reality that would reflect the modern world in the wake of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the July Revolution of 1830, various revolutions in 1848 etc. etc. etc. Delacroix agonised about how ‘finished’ a picture should be, believing that the spectator had a richer, more dynamic experience if he completed an image for himself in his imagination. Sadly, this evolved such that he managed, eventually, to convince himself that rough, sloppy painting somehow brought his viewers closer to the truth of what he was trying to depict than pictures he had actually bothered to complete.
At the age of twenty-four Delacroix produced his first major painting, The Barque of Dante (Louvre, Paris). Nominally an illustration to the eighth book of Dante’s Inferno, this picture is really meant as proof that Delacroix was the true heir, not only to Rubens, but also to all three great sixteenth-century Venetian painters (Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto). This early in his career Delacroix has already mastered the painting of water: waves, foam, wet skin and even swimming bodies. The Barque of Dante has dead spots in the composition; the colour isn’t terribly interesting; some of the worst defects of Delacroix’s painting are visible in embryo (for example, the painter’s complete lack of interest in what is supposed to be the main subject of the piece). Yet the textures are so deft and lively, and the sense of observation so sharp, that it takes time to notice that there’s anything at all wrong with the picture.
The Louvre’s collection of early Delacroix pictures shows the painter at his most confident, ambitious and assured; but none of the canvasses that made him famous is on display in Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art. The Death of Sardanapalus (1828), The Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1837–1841) and The Barque of Dante (1822) are seen only in small, hasty copies by Renoir, Manet and Delacroix himself. Instead of major works this exhibition proffers profligate inferior little sketches and studies that give no idea of the painter’s skill, only making clear how faulty his compositions could be, and how pedestrian his sense of colour was.
Delacroix’s admirers don’t fare much better in this show. Much of it is made up of second-rate pictures by Fantin-Latour, Odilon Redon and other no-names who fill up wall space without adding anything to the story. More important painters like Degas, Renoir, van Gogh and Gauguin are represented by lesser pictures that are often simply irrelevant, or have been included in the exhibition under false pretences.
John Singer Sargent’s 1902 portrait of Lord Ribblesdale has been hung near Delacroix’s 1826 picture of Louis-Auguste Schwiter with the excuse that the latter might have influenced the former. Horseshit. Delacroix admired and imitated Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portraits, and so did Sargent. But Sargent nowhere discusses or even mentions any connection to Delacroix, and is unlikely even to have seen the Schwiter picture. The curators have made up an imaginary connection purely because the National Gallery owns both of these pictures and didn’t have anything better to represent the influence of Delacroix as a portrait painter. This, in turn, probably because he had no influence on anybody as a portrait painter – he was too busy slavishly copying Sir Thomas Lawrence.
At least Delacroix’s famous Louvre self-portrait (1836) made it to this exhibition from Paris. It almost makes up for some of the disappointing religious paintings from the 1840s and 1850s that have been included in this show. Delacroix wasn’t a churchgoer, and indeed probably didn’t even believe in God; you can tell by the lazy indifference and forced emotion of these pictures. Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1853, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) brilliantly depicts choppy waters and stormy weather; the only weak spot in this picture is the subject itself. If the boat containing Christ and His disciples was eliminated nobody would notice.
The single most embarrassing picture in this exhibition is Bathers (1854; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford Connecticut). The artist’s taste and judgment have deserted him completely here and the picture is repellently tacky even as an example of chocolate-box kitsch. This ought to be a sensual picture of exotic naked women provocatively swimming in a secluded lake, except that Delacroix couldn’t even pretend to be interested in them; he could only paint women wearing clothes that could hold his attention. Colour, composition, narrative, landscape, water, flowers, clothing, flesh – the painter has failed here at all of these. What is the point of putting this eyesore on display?
One knows that something has gone wrong when the highlight of a Delacroix show is a picture by Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870). La Toilette (1870, Musée Fabre, Montpellier) has no reason for being here whatsoever. A naked woman on a fur blanket waits for her white maid to throw a silken kimono round her shoulders, whilst a kneeling (and topless) black maid towels her off and puts slippers on her feet. This is a superb picture – pitiless and coldly matter-of-fact in the way that Manet and Degas were regarding prostitutes. But it’s in the wrong exhibition. Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art is the Rubens exhibition of this year, if by ‘Rubens exhibition’ we mean a pathetic mess. Give it a miss and read Delacroix’s journals instead, which are not merely superb but – to be honest – vastly better than his art.
Catalogue (Yale University Press):
£35 hardback, £19.95 paperback