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.
Many of those he spent time with, even in his palmiest days, were not social butterflies but fellow artists like George Sand and Chopin, and school friends who had become civil servants. Yet his intellectual isolation should not be underestimated. Wilson-Smith’s chapter describing Delacroix’s friendship with Chopin and George Sand, and the mutual support that offered, must be set against his account, drawn from letters and journals, of Delacroix’s thoughts about the art of painting, literature, his life and the destiny of man. There are few painters who have thought so clearly about the activity of making paintings. He took an equally clear view of human destiny. He did not find much to hope for. He asked Chopin if he shared a feeling of ‘unbearable emptiness’, and said that progress must carry with it not still greater progress, but a final negation of progress – a return to the point from which we set out.
Delacroix’s early successes – from The Barque of Dante to the Death of Sardanapalus – have proved durable icons of the Romantic imagination. He didn’t like being described as a Romantic painter – though he undoubtedly was one. He was, equally plainly, a romantic figure. Being a loner, even a loner firmly set in a social matrix, is itself dashing. Wilson-Smith quotes accounts by Degas and Redon which show how the personality Delacroix projected – isolated, self-absorbed – was read by a younger generation of painters. Degas remembered seeing him, walking with his collar turned up and a scarf around his neck, ‘rapidly crossing the street, and stepping up on the other pavement, still going fast’. The memory stuck in his mind: ‘Whenever I go past that spot, which is often, I always recall Delacroix in a great hurry.’ Redon and his brother followed him home from an official ball at the Préfecture:
He crossed Paris alone, his head bent, moving like a cat on the best pavements. A notice saying ‘Pictures’ drew his attention; he went up to it, read it, went on, apparently in a dream, wrapped in some inner thought. He crossed the town till he reached the door of an apartment house in rue La Rochefoucauld which he lived in no longer. Perhaps that was mere habit. He moved very quietly on, still self-absorbed, till he came to the small rue Furstenberg, the silent street he then lived in.
Another way of getting to grips with the young man Wilson-Smith describes is through fiction. Delacroix is a hero in Balzacian mode: handsome; mixing with journalists, aristocrats and politicians; desperately short of money; advancing thanks to political connections and personal charm as well as by demonstrable talent; making love to models and servant girls; charming duchesses and bourgeois wives. But he was no Lucien de Rubempré, a rocket that would self-destruct. Delacroix’s ambition and ability were matched by intelligence and good behaviour.
He looked striking – slight, fierce (he was often compared to the tigers he liked to paint) and melancholy. He was well connected – on his father’s side to the Napoleonic bureaucracy and on his mother’s to a craft aristocracy of great distinction. She was descended from royal cabinet makers – her father was Jean-François Oeben, her stepfather Jean Henri Riesner. Eugène’s precise inheritance on his father’s side is unclear, for who was his father? Charles Delacroix was incapacitated by a growth on a testicle at the time of Eugène’s conception. The favoured candidate has long been Talleyrand, another possibility is Ferdinand Guillmardet, a family friend and diplomat. Whatever the truth it did not diminish the ties of family. There is no evidence that the relations between Charles Delacroix and his wife were anything but affectionate. He died when Eugène was seven, and everything that Delacroix said or wrote about him is admiring.
Wilson-Smith has organised his biography under topics rather than chronologically. The consequent loss of narrative drive is a price worth paying for better orientation. Delacroix was born in 1798. He grew up in post-Revolutionary France and began his training as a painter during Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’. Louis XVIII was on the throne when he showed his first painting in the Salon (The Barque of Dante); Charles X was on the throne when, in 1827–8, he was painting The Death of Sardanapalus. In 1830, he painted Liberty Leading the People. The opportunity to accompany a French embassy to Morocco in 1832 gave his Orientalism an ethnographic credibility and greater vitality; the first version of the Women of Algiers was exhibited in 1834, by which time the appointment of Thiers to the Ministry of Public Works had initiated a string of public commissions, in particular decorations for the Palais Bourbon and the Palais du Luxembourg. This has, ironically, resulted in much of the most important work of the second half of Delacroix’s life being hidden from public view.
The Delacroix family fortune, made under Napoleon, was lost as a result of bad luck and had management after Charles’s death. As a consequence Eugène, despite family connections, was poor. Official patronage of one kind of another – even before Thiers came in with major commissions – was important to him: by the end of his life it had made him prosperous. The French tradition of maintaining contact within extended families resulted in a web of friendships with cousins of various degrees; a succession of affairs with mistresses of rising social status culminated in his relationship with Joséphine, Baronne de Forget. It cooled to a friendship, but he corresponded with and visited her to the end of his life. He was a member of the Paris city council and, eventually after many unsuccessful applications, elected to the Institut.
The depressed view Delacroix took of humanity and the analytical sharpness of much of his writing about painting is at odds with the emotional eloquence of his pictures. For him, painting was a way of infusing appearances with emotional force, of transforming a model or the memory of an exotic landscape into poetry. He criticises a picture by Honthorst for being ‘scarcely more than portraits of models’, and while he found that ‘the instruction that the daguerreotype affords to a man who paints from memory is an inestimable advantage,’ transformation was always difficult: ‘true effect is also the rarest thing in the majority of pictures where a big role is played by the model, who concentrates all thought upon himself.’ He admired Rubens and wrote of him that ‘abandon and audacity alone can produce such impressions.’
‘Abandon and audacity’ are what his own early pictures achieved. Like Rubens’s own paintings and most others in the post-Renaissance tradition of great set-pieces, they were constructed from discrete parts. The composition was worked up in sketches. Studies were then made from life; they gave individual figures a sinking veracity. Quotations (from Michelangelo in the Barque of Dante and Rubens in The Massacre at Chios) had resonances similar to those which Classical allusions produce in literature. It is these early pictures – and not just because they are the ones it is easiest to get to see – which have achieved the fame that makes it possible for cartoonists to quote them and for Liberty Leading the People to be an appropriate decoration for French banknotes.
There is a particular kind of face – straightnosed, high cheekboned – which Delacroix celebrated in his early pictures. Liberty has it, and the woman in the foreground of the Massacre. It also prefigures what he would find in Morocco. Like more trivial invented or chosen paradigms (the Gibson Girl, Shrimpton, Twiggy, Cindy Crawford) which become envied archetypes, it is a far from trivial component in the effectiveness of the paintings. ‘What a contrast a straight nose presents with the turned up nose.’ Delacroix wrote (in 1822, the year The Barque of Dante was exhibited in the Salon): ‘there was a time when one of my weaknesses was thinking the turned-up nose a misfortune, and the straight nose a compensation for many disadvantages. They are actually ugly. It’s a matter of instinct.’
Delacroix’s later paintings depend more and more on pure imagination, or a memory of things seen – in particular, things recalled from the crucial months he spent in Morocco in 1832. The Lawrence-like fluency and virtuosity of the portrait of Baron Schwiter of 1828 has the painterly verisimilitude which will, in the hands of noble painters like Boldoni, eventually forget its origins in the 17th century and slither off into society portraiture. Delacroix took quite another course, which has its starting-point, I would guess, in Rubens’s great figure paintings and sketches. Eventually, in pictures like the murals in St Sulpice made in the 1850s and small, late Oriental subjects, Delacroix achieved work which was both original and in the European tradition of painting-as-illustration. Very soon this tradition would only exist in ironical or attenuated forms. Delacroix’s are among the last great history paintings. Like any biography of Delacroix, Wilson-Smith’s must stand in the shadow of the journals and letters. He has constructed a useful, workmanlike modern frame for that great but incomplete self-portrait.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.