Through The Past, Darkly

Eugène Delacroix, Scènes des massacres de Scio (Scenes from the Massacres at Chios) 1824, oil on canvas, 13' 8 1⁄4'' × 11' 7 3⁄8''. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre).

WE ARE IN HELL. Standing in a boat tossed by the infernal waters, our guide, the poet Dante, leans slightly on his companion, Virgil, to keep his balance. Rising from the waves, the contorted figures of damned souls accost the boat from all sides in a tight frieze of misery and despair. Though only shades of life, they appear as fleshy nudes vying for Dante’s—and our—attention. A demonic-looking man on the left lifts himself up by his arms to sink his teeth into the prow. The illuminated torso of another, splayed languidly on the waves like a floater, bounces off the vessel’s side. Next to him, a faceless athletic male delivers a powerful kick to a woman who tries to hold onto the bark’s rim, her face distorted by inner torment, her long windblown hair draped over her brutal neighbor’s knee. A pair of male figures emerges from the water entangled in a cannibalistic embrace, while, behind the oarsman, another distressed figure climbs into the boat, staring at us menacingly with bloodshot eyes. In the distance, the infernal city of Dis burns slowly with a glow.

Based loosely on canto 8 of Dante’s Inferno, this scene of anguish was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1822 by a barely twenty-four-year-old Eugène Delacroix.1 Dante et Virgile aux enfers (Dante and Virgil in the Underworld), commonly known as La Barque de Dante (The Barque of Dante), was an ambitious debut, a young painter’s gambit for public attention. When Delacroix failed to win the prestigious Prix de Rome—which allowed its recipient four years of fully funded studies in Italy—he abandoned the established institutional routes to try his fortune at the public exhibition. The painting he showed aimed to captivate the audience by both its sensational interpretation of its subject—Dante’s poem rendered as a gothic novel—and its unusually bold execution.2 Delacroix activated the medium of painting, unleashing all its uniquely persuasive visual and tactile means to plunge his viewers into a spectacle, at once attractive and terrifying, of his own invention.3 The figures of the damned epitomized his approach. Circumventing academic protocols mandating the extensive use of preparatory studies, the artist painted directly from live models, a method that enhanced the expressivity of the body, producing a sense of its immediate physical presence.4 Using thick, often unintegrated strokes—denounced by some critics as choppy and incoherent—and inventive chromatic effects, among them the famous drops of water on the skin of the “floater,” rendered in the contrasting hues of orange and green, Delacroix made the damned come alive on the canvas: They accost the viewer as they accosted Dante’s boat. As a result, most of the Salon critics, supporters and detractors alike, focused on the damned. Adolphe Thiers admired the way Delacroix “throws his figures, groups them and bends them to his will, with the boldness of Michelangelo and the fecundity of Rubens,” while Étienne-Jean Delécluze admitted to the unquestionable force of the painter’s creations, though he dismissed the coloristic bravado of the canvas as a “mud pie” (une tartouillade).5

Eugène Delacroix, Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople (Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople), 1840, oil on canvas, 13' 5 1⁄2'' × 16' 4''.

With its highly emotive language of the body, its rhetoric of torment and suffering, and its embrace of touch and color as expressive means in and of themselves, The Barque of Dante announced the novel ways in which Delacroix would use painting to engage his public throughout the 1820s. He was not alone in this approach. Other artists of his generation who were associated with Romanticism—Horace Vernet, Ary Scheffer, Xavier Sigalon—also abandoned academic methods to embrace painting as a “speculative exercise” made for the public eye.6 But Delacroix was by far the most successful in getting noticed and talked about, not just because of what he chose to paint but because of how. Recognizing the artistic promise of The Barque of Dante, the state bought the painting straight from the Salon and placed it in the museum of living artists—an unusual feat for a debutant.7

IN THE WAKE of his Salon success, Delacroix wrote in his journal: “I feel that I want to paint my own century.”8 What did he mean? How does one paint one’s own times? One way is to take up subjects of immediate contemporary relevance. Although Dante was perhaps not an obvious source for such a purpose, Delacroix’s liberal interpretation of the poet’s text made it resonate with his viewers’ concerns: One could easily read his painting as a latent image of early-nineteenth-century French society’s difficult passage through the troubled waters of the Restoration, a period haunted by the ghosts of recent French history—the Revolution, the fall of the Napoleonic empire—and its attendant collective physical and psychic losses. The poet’s bark encircled by a human wreath of wrath and misery—a motif invented by the painter—embodied this repressed and yet stubbornly resurfacing past. In his subsequent work, Delacroix chose subjects even more directly relevant to his audience. In a series of ambitious large-scale canvases of the 1820s and ’30s—Scènes des massacres de Scio (Scenes from the Massacres at Chios), 1824; La Grèce sur les ruines de Missolonghi (Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi), 1826; and La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), 1830—the painter took up the Liberalist political agenda (e.g.,the cause of Greek independence championed by the philhellenic movement in France) and the crucial political event for the French, the Revolution of July 1830.

Eugène Delacroix, La Grèce sur les ruines de Missolonghi (Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi), 1826, oil on canvas, 82 3⁄8 × 57 7⁄8". © Musée des Beaux-Arts, ville de Bordeaux.

Delacroix activated the medium of painting, unleashing all its uniquely persuasive visual and tactile means to plunge his viewers into a spectacle.

By embracing subjects of immediate social and political resonance, Delacroix followed in the steps of Théodore Géricault, his older colleague and mentor, whose Raft of the Medusa—a searing image of a shipwreck caused by incompetence and political corruption—was shown at the Salon of 1819 and established a model of critical artistic practice under the Restoration. Like the Raft, Scenes from the Massacres at Chios, which represented the Greeks’ failure to gain independence from Ottoman rule, was a tableau of human misery and indignity that appealed to viewers’ moral conscience. Yet Delacroix’s understanding of the mission of painting in performing such an ethical task differed from Géricault’s in two major respects. One was Delacroix’s more experimental approach to his medium: He believed that painting possessed a unique capacity to communicate—that it provided a “mysterious bridge” between the soul of the represented figures and that of the spectator. To bring about this intimate subjective connection, Delacroix broke more decisively than Géricault with existing pictorial conventions—instead of adopting a traditional hierarchical composition, Chios confronts the spectator with a seemingly random assemblage of figures—and he mobilized more idiosyncratically the technical and material arsenal of the painter. “The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material,” Delacroix wrote in his journal.9 This recognition of painting’s emotive potential led Delacroix to use touch and color to establish a more direct and multisensory, rather than merely visual, connection between his paintings and the viewer.10

Eugène Delacroix, La mort de Sardanapale (The Death of Sardanapalus), 1827, oil on canvas, 12' 11 1⁄2'' x 16' 2 7⁄8''. © Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN–Grand Palais.

Delacroix’s experimental handling surprised his contemporaries. His staunch supporter Thiers lauded Chios’s “completely voluntary crudity,” whereas the Davidian painter Antoine-Jean Gros, who praised The Barque of Dante at the Salon of 1822 as an impressive revision of Rubens (“C’est Rubens châtié”), lamented the “massacre of painting” in Chios two years later.11 Delacroix’s manner—his “passionate incorrection,” an attempt “to create the ugly”—was perceived as a threat to the very raison d’être of painting.12 Critics such as Gros appeared to intuit that the painting’s challenge to aesthetic norms was also a challenge to social norms.13

It is the female body, especially in the artist’s grand-scale early works, that is privileged as a sexed signifier of violence, male domination, and mastery.

This leads us to the second important difference between Delacroix’s aesthetic project and that of his predecessor: Delacroix’s aesthetic reliance on women. Female figures are absent from Géricault’s most ambitious paintings, notably the Raft.14 But for Delacroix, they perform a significant role and are even main protagonists. Yet their function is narrowly defined: They are consistently sexualized and often represent the conflation of sex and violence. Beginning with The Barque of Dante, where the aforementioned female nude is being kicked by her fellow damned man, the subordinated, captured, violated, or otherwise maltreated female figure appears as a recurring trope. The seminude, erotically charged Greek woman being abducted by a horse-mounted Turk in Chios; the two women prostrated in front the Crusaders in the Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople (Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople), 1840; and, in the background of this painting, another woman lying disheveled on the ground next to the open casket of her jewels (evidently an allusion to rape) illustrateDelacroix’s predilection for a subjugated and violated female body as a signifier of other, political or religious forms of domination and violence. To be sure, much of Delacroix’s oeuvre testifies to his penchant for violence as such, and men, too, are the object of it.15 But it is the female body, especially in the artist’s grand-scale early works, that is privileged as a sexed signifier of violence, male domination, and mastery. Even when he casts a woman in a dominant role, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to define her in sexual terms. In Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, the personification of Greece subjugated by Ottoman power—the latter hinted at by the ominous silhouette of a black warrior in the background—opens her eroticized body to the viewer, her dress dropping to reveal her naked breasts, in a plea for help. In Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix endows his allegorical protagonist with explicit sexual energy as she strides, with her entire upper body unabashedly exposed, across the barricade.16

View of “Delacroix,” 2018–19, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Left wall, center: Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartment (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), 1834.

Delacroix’s demeaning treatment of women is certainly linked to women’s diminished and constrained role in post-Revolutionary French society. The Napoleonic Code deprived women of the few rights they had gained from the Revolution, including the right to divorce; put them under the legal control of men; and confined them to the domestic realm. But the artist’s proclivity for violated femininity exceeded even the woman-hostile standards of his time. It seems to have had deep personal roots and was intimately linked to both his process and his artistic self-conception. Disturbing evidence of the painter’s masculinist sense of sexual entitlement and misogyny in real life abound in his journal, where he often mentions “una dolce chiavatura,” referring to his frequent sexual intercourse with his models during posing sessions. He also comments disparagingly on women’s limited creativity, even when he speaks of the writer George Sand, his intimate and cherished friend.17 The connection between Delacroix’s conception of femininity and his self-understanding as an artist finds its most explicit representation in La mort de Sardanapale (The Death of Sardanapalus), 1827. Shown at the Salon of 1827–28, the painting—a Lord Byron–based vision of an oriental despot who, besieged by his enemies, orders the destruction of all his possessions, including his female slaves, before immolating himself—is a thinly veiled representation of the artist: a sublimated fantasy of creation as a process of destruction wherein sexual desire and violence are indissociable. Bathed in blood red, this messy scene of carnage proved too much even for Delacroix’s most indulgent contemporaries. The painting was unanimously panned by the Salon critics and never again did the painter reveal as openly the phantasmic underpinnings of his creativity. But he did remain attached to the figure of a tormented, threatened, and, in turn, herself threatening woman—variously Medea, Rebecca (the heroine of Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe [1819]), Ophelia, Desdemona, and Mary Magdalene—in his later work.

DELACROIX’S CAREER, which was reasonably long (he died in 1863, at the age of sixty-five), spanned many political regimes. He grew up during the final phase of the French Revolution and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire; he lived through the Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Second Republic; and he died during the Second Empire. These years saw kaleidoscopic changes in government structure and the functioning of society. Throughout, Delacroix remained in the public eye. In addition to exhibiting regularly at the Salon, he received multiple important commissions for paintings and mural decorations for public buildings and churches in Paris and the provinces.18 Attuned to the demands of the art market, he produced cabinet pictures of fêtes galantes and chivalric romances. Increasingly, in the second half of his career, Delacroix treated his own body of work as a repository from which to draw.19 His 1832 visit to North Africa provided him with themes and ideas to which he repeatedly returned.

View of “Delacroix (1798–1863),” 2018, Louvre, Paris. From left: La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), 1830; Scènes des massacres de Scio (Scenes from the Massacres at Chios), 1824; Dante et Virgil aux enfers (Dante and Virgil in the Underworld), 1822. Photo: Antoine Mongodin.

Delacroix’s vast and varied oeuvre is difficult to sum up. The label “Romantic,” approximate at best, can hardly define the totality of his output.20 In what way could it fit his own early definition of his aesthetic project as “painting his own century”? While we might consider Delacroix’s output in the second half of his career as retardataire, this is not how he and some of his contemporaries saw it. In 1846, Charles Baudelaire defined Romanticism as “the most recent and most modern expression of beauty,” and for him, Delacroix epitomized modern painting.21 But Baudelaire’s Romantic conception of modernity was notoriously idiosyncratic: He associated the movement with “intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards infinity, expressed by every means known to the arts.”22 What he admired in Delacroix’s work was the mystery, brooding, and terror, which he compared—eccentrically—to characteristics of the work of Edgar Allan Poe.23

Baudelaire’s stance echoes in Giorgio Agamben’s provocative redefinition of contemporaneity as the quality of not being of one’s time, of assuming the deliberately anachronistic position of engaging with the present from a temporal distance.24 This noncoinciding position helps one discern what is invisible or unarticulated in one’s experience of the here and now. “To be contemporary is to confront full face the beam of darkness emanating from one’s times.”25 While Agamben speaks of poets, his concept of contemporaneity describes a politics of vision. To admit darkness into one’s vision, as he advocates, is to refuse to buy unproblematically into the light—what is obvious, self-evident, the doxa—of one’s times.26

Can Delacroix’s work be seen as “contemporary” in this sense? Should we understand his anachronistic strategies—his immersion in the past and in distant cultures, especially in the second half of his career—as in some way revelatory of his own times, or are they simply regressive, a symptom of a pernicious, not salutary, blindness? And what do we make of another kind of darkness traversing hisentire oeuvre—his violent treatment of women? What lesson, if any, can Delacroix’s daring, inventive, politically engaged, and yet also deeply troubling paintings offer to artists of today, many of whom adopt a deliberately anachronistic stance or pursue past-conscious figurative modes of representation?

What lesson, if any, can Delacroix’s deeply troubling paintings offer to artists of today, many of whom adopt a deliberately anachronistic stance or pursue past-conscious figurative modes of representation?

A recent exhibition offers an excellent opportunity to address the issues raised by Delacroix’s oeuvre. Originating at the Louvre in Paris, where the show was conceived by Sébastien Allard, chief curator and director of the Department of Painting, and Côme Fabre, curator of nineteenth-century French painting, it is currently on view in a version reconceived by Asher Miller, associate curator in the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.27 Given how rare the occasions to see an extensive presentation of the artist’s output have been—his last retrospective took place in France in 1963, and the current one at the Met is the first ever in the US—this is an event of great importance. Even in its reduced New York version, the exhibition—which contains works ranging from paintings to prints, drawings, sketchbooks, the manuscript of the painter’s journal (a diary combined with theoretical reflections on painting, literature, music, and other subjects that the artist kept for most of his life), and even a school notebook with his scribbles and doodles in it—is astounding in its scope, as is the curatorial effort that went into it and the production of a massive and erudite catalogue.28

Eugène Delacroix, Méphistophélès se présente chez Marthe (Mephistopheles Introduces Himself at Martha’s House), 1827, lithograph on paper, sheet size 17 × 12 7⁄8". From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, 1828. © Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet.

Providing a unique chance to revisit the art of Delacroix, the exhibition also poses some more general questions. What is painting for? What are the conditions under which it can function as a socially, politically, or culturally formative force—in the past and in the present?29 In what ways is Delacroix’s oeuvre relevant for us now?

The exhibition at the Met is a tour de force of curatorial skill, the more so given the absence of many key works. The hanging is intelligent, informed, viewer-friendly, and often illuminating. Within a roughly chronological frame, works are grouped under thematic headings that give the rooms more conceptual coherence than was offered in the Louvre version of the show. Painted in strong colors—navy, deep red, muted purple—the gallery walls both enhance the chromatic experience of individual paintings and contribute to the legibility and coherence of their groupings. (Displayed together, the battle scenes and works based on Walter Scott’s historical novels compellingly illustrate Delacroix’s new approach to history, for example.) The separate room devoted to Delacroix’s lithograph illustrations for an 1828 edition of Goethe’s Faust, shown also in Paris, evinces the importance of graphic work in the artist’s oeuvre, though the absence of his political caricatures is regrettable.30 (As is the absence of photography, an important tool for Delacroix.)31 Notable also are the final rooms of the Met exhibition, where the thematic regrouping of the works under four distinct categories does a better job of making sense of the painter’s late output than did the hang at the Louvre, where the works were thrown together somewhat pell-mell in a single gallery space. The curators also took advantage of several important objects from the Met’s and other American collections to make aspects of Delacroix’s practice and process more comprehensible.A quick exploratory drawing for the figure of a man biting the boat in The Barque of Dante, verging on caricature, is revelatory, even if the painting itself is not on show. Another fascinating object from the Met’s collection is a study of a white model made in preparation for the figure of the black servant in the Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartment (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), 1834, a graphite-and-watercolor drawing that, to my knowledge, has never been published and was exhibited only once before.

Eugène Delacroix, studies for The Barque of Dante, 1822, pen and ink over chalk and graphite on laid paper, 10 1⁄2 × 13 1⁄4".

The show at the Louvre, on the other hand, had the advantage of featuring Delacroix’s most important early masterpieces—and it made the best of them. Entering the exhibition, one was confronted by The Barque of Dante. Placed at a diagonal in the first main room of the show, it beckoned even as you read the exhibition’s introductory wall text in the anteroom. This placement conveyed the importance of the painting not only as Delacroix’s first Salon conquest, but also as a harbinger of his conception of public painting in the 1820s and ’30s, key examples of which were on display in this first gallery. The effect of this room was stunning—a display of the curators’ own strategy of conquest matching that of the artist. Scenes from the Massacres at Chios, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, Liberty Leading the People, and other works were crammed into a relatively small space, in a mode of presentation that proved surprisingly successful. The sheer scale of these canvases—normally displayed in one of the vast galleries of the Louvre together with other grand-scale paintings of the French school—came to the fore as an aesthetic factor. To be confronted by the crumbling wall of Greek victims in the Massacres at Chios, a canvas measuring more than thirteen by eleven feet, in a narrow room was far more overwhelming—and distressing—than seeing it from a distance in the Louvre’s Salle Mollien. This condensed presentation also made evident the breathtaking pace with which the young Delacroix worked in the 1820s and ’30s, during which time he produced a large-scale multifigure painting, often in addition to other, smaller works, almost every year.

Eugène Delacroix, sketch for La mort de Sardanapale (Death of Sardanapalus), 1826–27, oil on canvas, 31 7⁄8 × 39 3⁄8". © RMN–Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

BUT THIS SUGGESTIVE ENSEMBLE also posed a problem. The intimate display of the canvases encouraged you to enter the worlds imagined by the painter, perhaps establish the “mysterious bridge” described by Delacroix between the subjectivity of the depicted figures and your own. Yet, as a female viewer or even one merely alert to the issue of gender, you could not help but notice the painter’s prejudicial, objectifying, and sexualized representation of women, a representation that prevented you from fully relating to the protagonists of these masterpieces

Neither in Paris nor in New York did the exhibition broach this issue. The catalogue—an otherwise highly informative tome—offers no sustained discussion of Delacroix’s sexualized construction of femininity or, for that matter, his real-life misogyny. The wall text at the Met acknowledges that the painter recorded mixing work and sex with his live models in his journal, but the exhibition does not consider the implications. Nor does it in any way facilitate the viewer’s recognition of the sadistic representation of women in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, the sketch for and authored copy of which are on display, as a problem.32

Eugène Delacroix, figure study for Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartment (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), 1833–34, graphite and watercolor on wove paper, 12 7⁄8 × 8 1⁄4".

It also misses the opportunity to address the issue of race. In Paris, Delacroix’s studies of biracial women, including one of his favorite models, Aspasie, were treated in purely aesthetic terms, as a chromatic challenge. In New York, these studies are considered under the rubric of “artistic formation.” Nothing wrong with that—except that one would want to hear more about what it meant to paint women of color in post-Imperial France. Not much is said of the fact that Delacroix used a white model for the figure of the black servant in Women of Algiers, as the drawing from the Met’s collection attests. To think through this evidence more carefully from the viewpoint of the dynamics of interracial relations in Delacroix’s times would have been useful, especially given that the issue is of vivid interest for the American viewer today.

The emphasis on aesthetics also prevails in both exhibitions’ treatment of Delacroix’s orientalism. It must be said, first of all, that the display at the Met of the works related to the painter’s North African visit is amazing. In a room painted a deep brown-purple that sets off the vivid chroma of these pieces, most of the key paintings inspired by Delacroix’s visit, and several drawings produced during and after, are hung to their best advantage, in elegant cadences, with generous breathing space between them. The decision to exhibit paintings in the company of works on paper—which, because of conservation concerns, were displayed in an isolated, darkened corridor at the Louvre—was particularly felicitous. Though the selections represent only a sample of the vast visual trove the artist assembled during his six-month-long sojourn in the Maghreb—his extraordinary sketchbooks, now at the Louvre, sadly could not travel—they nonetheless offer an instructive glimpse of the material from which he manufactured his exoticizing visions. The most magnificent of these is Women of Algiers. Shown at the Salon of 1834, the painting, featuring three women and their servant enclosed in an interior, is an aesthetic summa of Delacroix’s North African experience.33 The sheer size and presence of its protagonists—calm, self-possessed, spectacular in their richly patterned and colorful attire and yet inaccessible, the gaze of each markedly shaded or withdrawn—is mesmerizing. Delacroix’s handling—see the petals of white pigment dotting the sheer blouse of the woman in the center that simultaneoulsy invite and block your gaze—emphasizes these figures’ ambiguous address. Placing a bench right in front of it, the Met encourages a sustained look at this extraordinary painting.

The relationship between French colonial ambitions and Delacroix’s interest in exotic themes is largely shrouded in curatorial silence.

And yet, look as long as you may, you will not be able to discern the nature of the circumstances in which this beguiling painting was made or reflect on what impact these circumstances may have had on its production. Delacroix went to North Africa in 1832 to accompany a French diplomatic mission that was seeking support from the sultan of Morocco for France’s colonizing efforts in the neighboring regency of Algiers. Two years before, France had invaded Algiers, embarking on a protracted and brutal war that ended only seventeen years later with the French subjugation of the country. Delacroix described his encounter with Morocco, and his brief stay in Algiers, where he supposedly visited the harem that inspired his painting, as an aesthetic revelation.34 He saw the Maghreb as a New Rome, a realm of “living antiquity.”35 But as many scholars have pointed out, the painter’s experiences, and by extension his works based on them, cannot be separated from the political context of the French colonial campaign that was unfolding in the area during his visit.

Eugène Delacroix, Femmes d’Alger dans leur apartment (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), 1834, oil on canvas, 70 7⁄8 × 90 1⁄4". © RMN–Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Yet the relationship between French colonial ambitions and Delacroix’s interest in exotic themes is largely shrouded in curatorial silence. The wall text at the Met mentions that Delacroix’s visit to North Africa came on the heels of the French invasion of Algeria, but no attempt is made either in the exhibition or in the catalogue to consider how this may have affected Delacroix’s vision—this despite the existence of extensive scholarship addressing this very question.36 Indeed, in their lengthy and sophisticated but largely depoliticized discussion of Women of Algiers in the catalogue, Allard and Fabre hardly acknowledge the complex arguments regarding the painting’s relation to its colonial context, dating back to Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay on the politics of orientalism, which was first published more than twenty-five years ago.37 I think in particular of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s nuanced and provocative interpretation of the Women of Algiers as a latent image of the colony in both its promises and its humiliations. In Grigsby’s view, this brilliant painting at once keeps the brutality and atrocities of French colonization at bay and inadvertently betrays conquest’s cost for the French themselves. The watch dangling prominently from the neck of the woman in the center of the picture epitomizes this ambiguity: As a token of exchange that “simultaneously promised and robbed the Frenchman of his possession,” it signals that “the colonizer’s access to the harem meant his loss of it.”38 As this reading suggests, the aesthetic refinement and complexity of the painting is the “mysterious bridge” to its politics.

Imperfect as it may be, the exhibition offers viewers a welcome opportunity to cast an admiring but also critical glance at Delacroix’s extraordinary oeuvre. After all, that’s what paintings are for. They materialize ideas that can be rethought, reimagined, and rematerialized. Those who know this best are, of course, painters. Over the years, many have sought to think through Delacroix—admiringly, anxiously, or critically—by copying or producing their own versions of his work. Women of Algiers, for one, proved an object of fascination and intense investment for male painters, from Renoir to Cézanne, from Picasso to Le Corbusier to Roy Lichtenstein. I wonder, though, what painters of today, the most significant of whom happen to be women, would make of Delacroix. I would like to see, for example, R. H. Quaytman’s “Chapter” on Women of Algiers, or Jutta Koether rethinking a Delacroix painting as she so provocatively did Poussin’s “Four Seasons,” 1660–64. I am curious what Amy Sillman’s sharp and witty brush would do with this work, and how Nina Chanel Abney’s pictorial collage would rearticulate it. It is, I believe, these particular painters, because of the mode in which they have engaged with their medium—at once playful and critical, conceptual and material, aware of but unconstrained by gender and race—who could bring us new insights into Delacroix’s work. They could “confront full face the darkness” that emanates from his paintings—false assumptions, harmful prejudices, ambiguities, and absences—and illuminate or reframe it. Delacroix would thus offer these artists the anachronistic means to “paint their own century.” Through their critical engagement with the painter’s work, they could also help us see differently our own moment in time. We need this help. For, like Delacroix’s protagonists, we are in hell.

“Delacroix” is on view through January 6, 2019.

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth is William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University.


1. See The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation, trans. Robert Pinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 61–68.

2. On Delacroix’s passion for gothic novels, see Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, “Eugène Delacroix and Popular Culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix,ed. Beth S. Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 48–68.

3. Delacroix significantly departed from Dante’s script, in particular by featuring the damned. There was only one damned soul that approached the poet’s bark in Dante’s original. See The Inferno of Dante, 61–63.

4. On Delacroix’s process, see Sébastien Allard’s excellent study Dante et Virgil aux enfers d’Eugène Delacroix (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2004).

5. “Il jette ses figures, les groupe, les plie à volonté avec la hardiesse de Michel-Ange et la fécondite de Rubens.” Adolphe Thiers, Le Salon de 1822,” Constitutionel, May 11, 1822, 4, and Étienne-Jean Delécluze, “Le Salon de 1822,” Moniteur universel,May 8, 1822. Tartouillade was a studio term referring to a loose mode of painting in which structure—and underdrawings—are forgone for the sake of color effect. For the larger implications of Delécluze’s use of the term—his recognition of the danger of a “formless” mode of painting that could lead to meaninglessness, to painting without ideas—see Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre’s nuanced discussion “The Sphinx of Modern Painting,” in Delacroix, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018), 12–13. Others also commented on Delacroix’s discontinuous strokes (touche hachée and incohérent). C. P. Landon, cited in Marie-Claude Chaudonneret, L’état & les artistes: De la Restauration à la monarchie de Juillet, 1815–1833 (Paris: Flammarion, 1999), 80.

6. On this generation, see James H. Rubin, “Delacroix and Romanticism,” in Wright, The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, 26–47, and Thomas Crow, Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

7. Established in 1818 in the Palais du Luxembourg. The purchase was arranged by the director of the royal museums, Comte de Forbin, as part of his ambitious policy to rejuvenate the arts. See Chaudonneret, L’état & les artistes, 30–36.

8. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, trans. Lucy Norton (London: Phaidon, 2004), 39 (May 9, 1824).

9. Delacroix, Journal, 7 (October 8, 1822).

10. For an eloquent discussion of Delacroix’s understanding of this aspect, see Lucy MacClintock, “Romantic actualité: Contemporaneity and Execution in the Work of Delacroix, Vernet, Scheffer, and Sigalon” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1993), 226. She describes Delacroix’s efforts to keep the viewer from reading the painting as a text and to establish its appeal as an insistent material surface, to shift emphasis from the discursive to the figural dimension of painting.

11. “Une crudité tout volontaire.” Adolphe Thiers, “Beaux-Arts: Exposition de 1824,” Le Globe, September 28, 1824. For Gros’s reaction, see Allard and Fabre, “Sphinx,” 13.

12. Delécluze, cited in MacClintock, “Romantic actualité,” 213.

13. Ibid., 213–15.

14. The painter considered including women, who actually were on the raft, but in the end eliminated them from the final composition. See Linda Nochlin, “Géricault, or the Absence of Women,” October, no. 68 (Spring 1994): 45–59.

15. One thinks of his scenes of intramale aggression situated in an exotic context, such as in the extraordinary Combat du Giaour et Hassan (Combat of the Giaour and Hassan), 1826, based on Lord Byron’s 1813 poem The Giaour.

16. The realness of this figure and her sexual appeal, uncommon for an embodiment of a political ideal, was one of the major reasons for the controversial reception of this canvas. See T. J. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 18–21, and Arlette Sérullaz and Vincent Pomarède, Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le people (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2012).

17. For “dolce chiavatura” and other explicit references to sex in the studio, see Delacroix, Journal, 21 (January 24, 1824), 26 (March 4, 1824), 33 (April 18, 1824), and elsewhere. For an additional example, see Eugène Delacroix, Journal, ed. Michèle Hannoosh (Paris: José Corti, 2009), 1:125 (March 5, 1824). For Delacroix’s misogynist remarks, see, for example, Delacroix, Journal (Phaidon), 178–79 (January 27, 1853, on women’s literary skills being limited to epistolary practice) or 226 (November 28, 1853, on George Sand).

18. For the Deputies’ Library at the National Assembly (1841–47), the Peers’ Library at the Palais du Luxembourg (1841–45), the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre (1850–51), the City Hall, and churches in Paris—notably, the Chapel of the Holy Angels in the church of Saint-Sulpice—and in the provinces.

19. For example, he depicted the graveyard scene from Hamlet four times: in a lithograph in 1828, and in three painted versions dating from 1835, 1839, and 1859, respectively.

20. See Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (New York: Norton, 1984), and Rubin, “Delacroix and Romanticism,” 26–47.

21. “L’expression la plus récente et la plus moderne de la beauté,” Charles Baudelaire, Salon de 1846, cited in Rosen and Zerner, Romanticism and Realism, 21. And further: “To say ‘romanticism’ is equivalent to saying ‘modern art’—that is, intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards infinity, expressed by every means know to the arts.”

22. Ibid., 22.

23. He observed that both “love to set their figures against greenish or purplish backgrounds in which we can glimpse the phosphorescence and decay and sniff the coming storm.” Charles Baudelaire, “Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Works,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1964), 91. For a discussion of the passage, see Michèle Hannoosh, “‘Painting His Thoughts on Paper’: Delacroix and His Journal,” in Delacroix, 241.

24. Giorgio Agamben, Qu-est-ce que le contemporain? (Paris: Rivages, 2008), 11.

25. “Contemporain est celui qui reçoit en plein visage le faisceau de ténèbres qui provient de son temps.” Agamben, Qu’est-ce que le contemporain?, 22. My translation.

26. I.e., this is not exactly a Romantic rejection of the Enlightenment, though there are, I think, elements of the critical Romantic project in it.

27. The exhibition was on view at the Louvre, Paris, March 29–July 23, 2018.

28. The Met’s catalogue is an adapted (and shortened) version of the Louvre catalogue.

29. I am referring to painting not as a prized possession—an expensive commodity—but as a meaningful and resonant form of representation, a form that can make a difference.

30. Unfortunate, too, was the omission of Ségolène Le Men’s essay on Delacroix’s prints, which was part of the Louvre exhibition catalogue, from the English version. For Delacroix’s political caricatures, see Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Eugène Delacroix: Prints, Politics, and Satire, 1814–1822 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

31. See Christophe Leribault, Delacroix et la photographie (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2008).

32. The painting itself, due to its fragile condition, remains at the Louvre.

33. The more so that, as I am told, because of its fragile condition, this is the last time this canvas will be allowed to travel.

34. On Delacroix’s visit to a harem in Algiers, see the important recent discussion by Malika Dorbani Bouabdellah, Eugène Delacroix: Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2008).

35. Delacroix to J. B. Pierret, Tangier, Morocco, February 29, 1832, in Eugène Delacroix: Selected Letters, 1815–1865 (Boston: MFA Publications, 1970), 187.

36. The most important ones are Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient,” Art in America, May 1983, 118–31, 187, 189, and 191; Todd Porterfield, The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798–1836 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Mary J. Harper, “The Poetic and the Politics of Delacroix’s Representation of the Harem in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” in Picturing the Middle East: A Hundred Years of European Orientalism, A Symposium (New York: Dahesh Museum, 1996), 52–65; Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Orient and Colonies,” in Wright, The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, 69–87; and Elisabeth A. Fraser, “A Painter’s Renunciation: Delacroix in North Africa,” in Mediterranean Encounters: Artists Between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, 1774–1839 (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017), 207–34.

37. Linda Nochlin, “The Imaginary Orient.” Later included in Linda Nochlin, Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

38. Grigsby, “Orient and Colonies,” 86.