- Delacroix by Timothy Wilson-Smith
Constable, 253 pp, £16.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 09 471270 0
Delacroix should be an open book to the British. He respected them. He was a dandy with a taste for English clothes. The English taught him to paint in watercolour. He admired and was influenced by English painters – Lawrence, Wilkie, Bonington and Constable – and took subjects from Scott, Byron and Shakespeare. While others crossed the Alps to see Rome, Delacroix crossed the Channel to England, and rather liked it (although he did think he might have liked Italy better). And yet his temperament and his way of life were shaped by social conventions, family attachments and political connections which were so distinctively of the French 19th century in character that Timothy Wilson-Smith’s biography leaves the British reader feeling around for something familiar to get a grip on. Perhaps one should first rid oneself of the idea that Delacroix’s Anglophilia is going to be any help, and assume that England, as much as Morocco, was attractive because it was exotic. The source of one’s puzzlement goes deeper than national differences, however. To make sense of Delacroix’s life one must understand how the disdainful Delacroix, who said he preferred to converse with things, could cohabit with the Delacroix who was constantly dining out and eager for public recognition.
The practical solution to this problem (how to combine public conviviality with private monkishness) was found in the now-vanished lifestyle of the cultivated bachelor. There are no longer, I would guess, enough energetic hostesses – amusing people with time on their hands, cooks, parlour maids and untaxed income – for any substantial part of society to indulge in the abundant entertaining which underpinned bachelor life of the old kind. But as long as it existed it was ideally suited to the needs of a man who wished to live in society but for his art. Henry James, Proust and Degas were all, like Delacroix, supported by it. When they went home it was to a housekeeper and the muse – who, Delacroix wrote, ‘is a jealous mistress. She abandons you at the slightest in fidelity.’ Home was for being alone, for working. The bachelor went out (depending on taste) to dine, to visit his mistress, to attend a grand social occasion, or to share domesticity with the families of cousins and friends. Not that Delacroix, who did all these things, always liked what he saw when he prowled. ‘All these elegant gentlemen and all these dainty little ladies do no more than drag themselves along from one hour to the other, without the slightest occupation for mind or body,’ he wrote in his journal, but that was in 1854, and by then his social round was much reduced. Work dominated his life, and at home he had the example of Jenny, his housekeeper, who came to have as much of his time as many wives would expect – and more control over his affairs. Her devotion made her so energetic in his interest that she alienated friends who had previously helped him keep his affairs in order.