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Eugène Delacroix

(1798—1863) French painter


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(b Charenton-St-Maurice, nr. Paris, 26 Apr. 1798; d Paris, 13 Aug. 1863).

French painter, draughtsman, and lithographer. He was one of the towering figures of the Romantic movement and one of the last major artists to devote a large part of his career to mural painting in the heroic tradition. Lorenz Eitner (An Outline of 19th Century European Painting, 1987) describes him as ‘the last great European painter to use the repertory of humanistic art with conviction and originality. In his hands, antique myth and medieval history, Golgotha and the Barricade, Faust and Hamlet, Scott and Byron, tiger and Odalisque yielded images of equal power.’ He was the son of a diplomat, Charles Delacroix, who at the time of his son's birth was ambassador in The Hague, but it has been suggested that his natural father was the great statesman Talleyrand, a friend of the family. His mother, Victoire Oeben, was the daughter of Jean-François Oeben, one of the most distinguished furniture makers of his day. Delacroix had a good education and grew up with a love of literature and music as well as art. In 1815 he began studying with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, who had earlier taught Géricault (whose work greatly influenced Delacroix), and the following year he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts. His real artistic education, however, was gained by copying Old Masters in the Louvre, where he delighted particularly in Rubens and the 16th-century Venetian painters. Throughout his life he remained a keen and perceptive student of his predecessors, and Rubens—with his richness of imagination, warmth of colour, and enormous energy—was a constant source of inspiration. In 1822 his career was brilliantly launched when his first submission to the Salon, the Barque of Dante (Louvre, Paris), a melodramatic scene from Dante's Inferno, was the talking point of the exhibition and was bought by the state. Two years later he had another success at the Salon with the Massacre at Chios (Louvre), inspired by a recent Turkish atrocity in the Greek War of Independence. It aroused much hostile criticism (Gros, who had admired the Barque of Dante, called it ‘the massacre of painting’), but it was awarded a gold medal and once again was bought by the state (with Talleyrand perhaps pulling strings in the background).

The success of the Massacre at Chios funded a trip to England in May–August 1825 (Delacroix had earlier met Bonington and admired Constable's Hay Wain, which had been exhibited to great acclaim in the 1824 Salon). After this visit, English literature became an important source of inspiration in his work for several years: his next major Salon success, for example, the violent and erotic Death of Sardanapalus (1827, Louvre), was based on a play by Byron. He was also influenced by contemporary English painting: his portrait of his friend Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826–30, NG, London) is almost like an act of homage to Lawrence, of whom he had a high opinion personally as well as professionally. Another major source of imagery in Delacroix's work came from North Africa. In 1832 he visited Spain, Morocco, and Algeria in the entourage of the Comte de Mornay (who headed a diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Morocco), and acquired a rich fund of exotic visual imagery that he exploited for the rest of his life, lion hunting becoming one of his favourite themes (Lion Hunt, 1861, Art Inst. of Chicago). In spite of his love of such quintessentially Romantic subjects and his open enmity with Ingres, who was upheld as the great champion of the classical tradition, Delacroix always regarded himself as part of this tradition, and for his large works he followed the time-honoured course of making numerous preparatory drawings. Although his work often gives the feeling of great spontaneity, he thought deeply about all aspects of his art and craft.

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Subjects: art.


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