At the heart of symbolism

The liberator


Self-portrait at 44, detail

The symphonic painting

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was the greatest painter of the 19th century. Endowed with a rare talent, he succeeded in combining passion and reason and anticipated the experiments of the Impressionists. He grew up in a family climate related to the Court, the army, the diplomacy and arts. His artistic tastes developed during his studies, but he still hesitated between music, poetry and painting. The visits to the Musée du Louvre, enriched with the masterpieces collected by Napoleon, determined his preference.

After the death of his mother in 1814 and the financial ruin of the family, he sank into solitude and sadness. It is in this state of mind that he discovered romanticism and Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) at the workshop of Guerin before going to the fine arts school.

Very keen on literature and classical painting from the north to the south of Europe, he evoked the “Divine comedy” and Rubens in the “Barque of Dante”.

The canvas was submitted to the Salon 1 in 1822. The interplay of light and dark underlined the dramatic atmosphere inherited from Géricault. Nevertheless, it was especially the influence of Byron that led Delacroix to heighten his passion for romanticism and for the Greek fight against the occupying Ottomans. His passion for the Mediterranean and Eastern world expressed itself in a hymn to the political freedom entitled “Massacres at Chios”.

Exhibited at the Salon in 1824, the canvas was rather coolly received, but marked the moment where the painter found a new pictorial language and discovered himself. The movement of the conquest of liberty is spreading throughout the whole painting, the air vibration, light and colour. Moreover, the influence of the luminosity of John Constable is sensitive.

Having become the leader of the Romantic Movement in spite of himself, he travelled in England in 1825. The French artists who refused academicism, personified by Ingres, went to London to look for a breath of freedom 2. Delacroix discovered there the beauty of the landscape, thoroughbreds and especially light.

Returned from London, he realized orders for the State and frequented salons. His sister Henriette died in 1827 and he was once again confronted with difficulties, notably financial. Although revolutionary in art, he hardly liked political revolution. Romanticism tried to transpose the revolutionary movement of the street into art. Taken by this enthusiasm, Delacroix painted an allegory of the riot days in 1830 entitled “28th July” or “Liberty leading the people”.

The painting was bought for the Royal museum.

In 1832, he embarked for Morocco and, on the way back, sailed along the coast of Algiers from which he came back with the famous painting, “Women of Algiers in their Apartment”, exhibited at the Salon in 1834.

It is one of the rare peaceful works of the painter as noticed by Odilon Redon who admired him. Afterwards, his life remained saturated by memories and notebooks from northern Africa. The rupture with the literary romanticism and Byron is accomplished. His palette has been enriched with audacious tones in yellow, pink and purple as well as greenish and bluish touches.

His return from Morocco signified the most active period of his artistic life composed of great decorative works (for the Chamber of Deputies, the Bourbon Palace, the Palace of Luxembourg, the Town hall, Versailles and the Musée du Louvre), portraits (self-portraits, George Sand, Frederic Chopin) and canvasses. Pushed by his cousin and mistress, Josephine de Forget, he frequented salons and applied for the Institute of France. Overworked and sick, he was finally elected in 1859. He nevertheless reached to finish his great last work for the Chapel of the Holy Angels of the church Saint Sulpice, his ultimate challenge.

The true freedom does not consist in choosing among different possibilities, but to apprehend all of them at once, to overcome their apparent oppositions and discover their complementarities within the unity

Eugène Delacroix died in 1863 after having lived a life in a deep solitude. Anyone could only perceive facets of him; no one, the being in his totality. He nevertheless attempted to give a complete picture of himself and painting in his Journal. Day after day, he noted his reflections on painting, poetry and music as well as on Parisian and political life in the middle of the 19th century.

The idea of a symphonic painting, where every element contributes to the general effect, is characteristic of Delacroix's work. Far from being simply juxtaposed, the different elements of the composition (characters, movements, gestures, lines, colours etc.) participate in creating the unity of the whole. Now, unity is a freedom pledge. Without unity, the various elements bring the spectator in different directions. Following one of them amounts to obliterating others, to split up the canvas and to give a fragmented meaning to it. Freedom does not consist in choosing a possibility among others, but to comprehend all of them, to overcome their apparent oppositions and discover their complementarities within the unity.

1 back The Salon is definitively a French institution aimed at exhibiting the works of approved artists. It dates back to Louis XIV, but was opened to all artists with the French Revolution.

2 back Conversely, Byron had left the neo-puritan and already Victorian England to fight the oppressing constraints of the established society, to assert the rights of the individual and to adopt the cause of the oppressed people.

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