The Louvre is hosting Paris’ first major Delacroix retrospective in more than half a century. /EPA-EFE
The Louvre is hosting Paris’ first major Delacroix retrospective in more than half a century. /EPA-EFE

To the barricades!

Art April 23, 2018 01:00

By Agence France-Presse

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A long-awaited Delacroix retrospective shows a hidden side of the ‘protean genius’

THE FIRST major retrospective in Paris of the great French painter Eugene Delacroix in more than half a century aims to show that there was far more to the artist than “Liberty Leading the People”.

His painting of Parisians being led over the barricades by a bare-breasted Liberty during the July Revolution of 1830 is one of the most iconic in art.

The stirring tableau is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Les Miserables”, with the boy holding two pistols on the right of the picture said to be the model for the street urchin Gavroche. 

But curators who have put together the huge exhibition at the Louvre, which holds the world’s largest collection of Delacroix’s work, say the bourgeois painter was hardly a revolutionary firebrand. 

“The Lion Hunt” /AFP

“There is much people do not understand about his career,” says Sebastien Allard. “He doesn’t easily fit into any single movement.”

He says the show he’s put together with Come Fabre – which will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in September – attempts to demonstrate the artist’s huge range.

It extended from large-scale historical subjects to religious and orientalist themes and from animal paintings and intimate drawings to still-lifes of flowers.

Although Delacroix’s “protean genius set the bar for virtually all other French painters” who followed him, his greatest creative period was actually quite short, Allard notes.

“Liberty Leading the People” is perhaps Delacroix’s best-known painting. /AFP

Delacroix’s most famous and dramatic works – the “Massacre at Chios” (1824), the “Death of Sardanapalus” (1827) and “Liberty Leading the People” – all date from the first decade of his career.

Allard says the tension characterising Delacroix’s work reflects that “on the one hand he wanted to be original and the other wanted to fit in with the grand tradition of Flemish and Venetian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries”.

Delacroix kept journals and notebooks for much of his life. /EPA-EFE

Delacroix was also probably the great artist who wrote the most, consigning his innermost thoughts about his work and his private life to a series of diaries.

In them we learn of his attraction to the writer Georges Sand and his fears about the progress of the tuberculosis dogging the latter part of his life. 

After two decades of only intermittently keeping a diary, he threw himself back into it in 1846, only to lose in a taxi his entire journal for the momentous year of 1848 – when revolutions shook Europe.

That did not, however, stop him keeping a journal religiously to the end of his life in 1863.

Delacroix, who never married, also attempted to compile a dictionary of art and translated work by Dante, Byron, Goethe and Shakespeare.

“Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)” continues at the Louvre until July 23 and will be at the Met in New York from September 17 until January 6, 2019.