San Francisco

Eugene Dela­croix

Achenbach Foun­dation for Graphic Arts

Two small oil paintings, 22 watercolors and drawings, and 31 prints in an exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of Delacroix’s death (1798–1863), assembled en­tirely from West Coast collections. These are small works, some of which signi­ficantly point up the essential character of Delacroix’s art. In them is that quality of intimacy, spirituality, freedom of line and movement of mass which was often frozen by inhibitions in his grand works, where the battle of Romanticism vs. Classicism is generally so apparent, and where the shadow of Gericault some­times obscures his own not insignificant contributions, or the breath of David chills the action of his figures despite their lush Oriental surroundings.

Not every paper here is a masterpiece, or even approaches being one, and tech­nically the prints leave much to be de­sired. But, whether watercolor, drawing or print, each contributes to an under­standing of what went into Delacroix’s master paintings, indicating to what ex­tent he, like others of his time, was con­cerned with the problem of scale, and how he attempted to solve it. Their size invites scrutiny, and so reveals his great­est weakness: paraphrasing. One must recall, of course, that Delacroix was a prolific artist, in a time when travel was still limited and communication rela­tively slow. It is to be expected that when his own experience failed him, he would resort to the experiences of the great painters who preceded him. He did so shamelessly, and not without loss of conviction, as when, even after hav­ing personally experienced the exotic life of Morocco’s bazaars and the wild fantasias of the Moorish horsemen, he filtered the resultant drawings and paintings through the reducing glass of the Classical idea.

Fantasias are those reckless, con­certed gallops which start slowly, al­most at a sleepy shuffle, and suddenly, at a given signal, erupt into life in a mad, wind-drinking race that comes to an abrupt, thundering climax with the firing of every gun and the reining-in of every horse to a rearing, plunging stop. Seemingly spontaneous, they are actually ritual performances with a long tradition. But they impressed Delacroix tremendously and in a way are symbolic of his tempestuous nature. Despite his emotional galloping and gunfire, he was constantly check-reined by an inbred respect for Greco-Roman law and or­der, regarding himself as a Classicist.

His smouldering violence is reflected in his most individual works here, studies of wild animals––lions, tigers, horses––not always as he saw them but as he wistfully imagined them to be, symbols of the elementary forces of nature.

E. M. Polley