The father of French Romanticisms.
An exhibition on Eugéne Delacroix (1798-1863), in collaboration with the Louvre for the celebration of the 220th anniversary of his birth, is currently underway in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 6th. On display, there are not only paintings but also drawings, prints and manuscripts for a total of about 180 works arranged in chronological order. This is a unique opportunity to get to know an artist who has played a fundamental role in art for his innovative painting.
Delacroix marked the beginning of French Romanticism. The artist moved away from the then declining neoclassical style and put strength and emotion into his paintings, so as to upset the observer on the emotional level. This was a style that was quite distant from the Neoclassicism that referred to the Greek tradition, which advocated order and balance. Neoclassical painting was in fact harmonious, soothing, and kept the viewer’s emotions in check – the daughter of the Enlightenment, which had placed reason above all else. On the contrary, Delacroix, perceiving the first ferments of Romanticism, depicts dramatic scenes, full of pathos.
For him, painting is the free expression of feelings – he paints turbulent scenes full of sudden gestures, seen as if they were “live”. This gives his paintings a feel of truth and almost that sensation of a news story, making him an extraordinarily modern artist.
In fact, credit goes to this artist for how history broke into the art, and not that idealized style of the neoclassical painters. On the contrary, this is real history, with its raw sides, massacres, violence, and the smoke of gunpowder. The protagonists of his paintings are not victorious generals on horseback depicted as the new Augustus, as seen in the paintings that Jacques L. David had made for Napoleon. Instead, they are patriots fighting for independence, Greek prisoners guarded by Turkish jailers, French citizens in arms against an unloved monarch. With Delacroix, we discover that it is not Reason that moves man. Moreover, the world is more restless, obscure and illogical than the Enlightenment had believed. We discover that it is even more extensive. In fact, Delacroix, impressed by the colours and worlds he experienced on his trip to Morocco and Algeria, often painted “exotic” subjects.
However, the topics with which he dealt are numerous, and this exhibition provides a wide vision. There are historical paintings, still life, as well as scenes taken from literature or mythology.
Whatever the subject, the viewer is struck by the extraordinary innovations in the composition of the image and in the pictorial technique. In fact, having grown impatient with the traditional formulas, he arranged the figures in an apparently random manner, breaking the academic rules of symmetry and perspective. He created precarious, centreless compositions that cancel the Renaissance spatial square (all that is inside the picture must be represented). On the edges, we find partially represented figures that give us the feeling that the scene continues, that there is another person beyond the painting who we do not see.
The artist was unconventional and profoundly innovative in his painting techniques as well. His rapid and impetuous brushstrokes were quite different from that of neoclassical painters, defined by clean strokes and bounded by rigorous contour lines. Even the use of colour is original. His African experience led him to analyse the light on objects in a way that until then had never been done. He observed that the colour that the eye sees is not the colour of the object itself, but rather that which the light reveals. For example, the nudes of Delacroix lack those perfect and uniform rosé tones of traditional painting, but take on a different colour based on how the light strikes them. This led him to abandon the use of half-tones, meaning the colours mixed on the palette with white or black. He uses juxtaposed brushstrokes of pure colour, in order to create the passing of light on the same object. Consequently, he represents colour not as it is in reality, but also as how light reveals colour and how eyes perceive it. This use of pure colours, in addition to enhancing colours, was a step ahead of the revolution created by the Impressionism of the second half of the century, bringing a specific season of European painting to a close. From that moment on, modern painting would begin.