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Monday, April 23, 2012



La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (Liberty Leading the People) 1830, at the Louvre

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) is one of the foremost artists of the French Romantic Movement. As in most instances of the “romantic” personality there is a quarrel within the artist between his inherited classicist tradition and the will for revolutionary innovation. Delacroix’s great contribution to the revolutionary movement in the arts lies in his colorism, his technique in the creation of color as well as in its use and application on the canvas. His famous work of 1830, “La Liberte Guidant le Peuple,” above, celebrating the outbreak of the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris, is both a display of his colorism as well as an affirmation of his political sympathies. Revolution in technique and application thus foreshadow and reflect the political revolution which the artist celebrates and to which he adheres. The painting is a prototypical Romantic work of art and an iconic expression of the Age of Revolutions. I will discuss it further below, as well as two of its predecessors, the painting called “Scènes du Massacre des Chios” of 1824, and “La Grece sur les Ruins de Missolonghi” of 1826, both of which are emotional appeals on behalf of the Greek Revolution of the 1820’s. Together they constitute an interesting example of the political dimension of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century.


With regards strictly to the aesthetics of the Romantic output, the journey leading Delacroix to the barricades of 1830 begins much earlier in the history of French Art.

For the purposes of this survey I rely primarily on Walter Friedlaender's historical study, David to Delacroix (Harvard, 1964, trans. Robert Goldwater). In this excellent book, Friedlaender traces the origins of Delacroix’s “colorism” to the dialectic between the two major schools of French painting, namely, that generally associated with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), and its rival, the school that traces its origins to the work of Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). A subjective appeal to the ineffable notion of “taste,” as a cover for “Coeur” (“heart”), or “Esprit” (“spirit”), is the essence of what Friedlaender calls the “irrational” school of French painting, best represented by the work of Watteau, and in this irrational strain lies the origin of “colorism,” in effect, the use of color for emotional appeal, making sentiment the criterion of aesthetic judgment.

Watteau, “L’Embarquement pour Cythere” (Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera)
1717, in the Louvre.

Opposed to this tradition is the rationalism of the Academy, where strict canons of technique and rendition serve as the underlying foundation for a system of morality that is both aesthetic and political. Poussin is the artist of the Court of Louis XIV and his work is meant to reflect and to uphold a moral and political world order that derives from the power of the King. This moral order is expressed aesthetically in terms of the rationality of subject matter, composition and technique, in mutually reinforcing harmonies, hearkening back to the art of Ancient Greece and Rome. It is the foundation of what has come to be known as the Classical School in Art.

Poussin, “Et in Arcadia Ego:” 1637-38, in the Louvre

In Poussin’s work, "Et in Arcadia Ego" (above) the fine line and perfect contour, referred to as “linearity” in the academic style, the subdued and harmonious coloring, and the balance in the arrangement of the figures in the composition, are all designed to convey the essentially moral lesson provided by the subject of the painting, namely, that Death is present even in the idyllic and Utopian world of Arcadia. “Et in Arcadia Ego”: “Even in Arcadia I (am there).” In this classical setting, one of the shepherds recognizes the shadow of his companion on the tomb and circumscribes the silhouette with his finger. The memento mori is a warning of the transience of life in even the most idealized setting.

Against Poussin and his followers, a rigorous school, which evolved into a restrictive and rationalistic academicism, the “irrational” school emerged as a reaction: a reaction against academic limitations in technique and subject matter, a reaction against Reason as a criterion for aesthetic judgment, and a reaction against the entire Classical genre. From Watteau to Fragonard, during the Regency period, both color and subject matter, a looser rendition of line and contour, an appeal to taste and to the emotional responses of the heart, emerged as aesthetic vehicles of opposition to the art of the Academy, and this “aesthetic cleavage” would re-emerge in the quarrel between Ingres and Delacroix during the early nineteenth century. Romantic painting in France has its origins in the emotional strain of the ‘irrational’ school of eighteenth century French painting.

The French Revolution and the adaptation of Classicism

The evolution of colorism and the gradual displacement of academic linearity can be traced in the dialectical play of competing stylistic developments that accompanied the vagaries of the political struggle during the Age of Revolution.

The painter of the Revolution is Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). His strict academic style, his perfection of line and form, in its heroic classical setting, are evident in a painting that predates the Revolution by four years, “The Oath of the Horatii” of 1785. Here we see the “quiet grandeur and noble simplicity” that Winckelmann considered to be the proper condition of beauty.

Jacques-Louis David, “Le Serment des Horaces” (Oath of the Horatii) 1785, at the Louvre

David’s work would become fashionable during the years of the Revolution and into the period of the Terror. His paintings were “politically correct,” and at one time they appear to be a recurrent oath of allegiance to the Revolution. In “Le Serment du Jeau de Paume” (Oath of the Tennis Court) of 1791, David has faithfully recorded the fateful moment when members of the Third and Second Estates who had turned away from the divided National Assembly met at a tennis court near the Palace of Versailles and pledged “never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances demand, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations.” This event, or rather its foundational authority in historical perspective, probably owes more to David’s painting than to the confused reports of what happened on the 20th of June, 1789, in Versailles.

David, “Le Serment du Jeau de Paume” (Oath of the Tennis Court) 1791, Louvre

David’s portrait of the dead Marat is another example of his Classicism at the service of the Revolution. Leaving aside the obvious political intent of the painting, the deification of a virtuous Republican hero, there is also a reminder there of the suicide of Seneca in his bath tub, and hence, despite the mundane circumstances of the crime, of a scene from the annals of Roman heroism. Marat was stabbed by a political opponent, the volatile Charlotte Corday, while he sat in a tub of water to relieve the perpetual itching of his diseased skin.

David, “À Marat” (“The Death of Marat”) 1793, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels

These paintings all share the academic rigor of the Academy and seek to adorn, by way of the Classicist canon of literature and art, the epic events of the French Revolution. However, they are not revolutionary works in themselves. The perfect linearity of the figuration and the muted use of color betray their essentially conservative tendency in the evolution of French painting.

The Transition from Classicism to Romanticism

In the years following the Revolution, David’s followers continued to work along the lines of the technical Classicism he favored, as we see, for example, in the 1798 “Cupid and Psyche” of Francois Gerard (1770-1837), a very good example of academic linearity.

Gerard, “Cupid and Psyche” 1798

But apparent here already is a graceful softness and elegant lyricism and sentimentality in the painting, a tenderness which recalls the “irrational” school of the Regency period now pulsating within the body of Davidian Classicism. The Cupid is a large putto, a subject favored by the Rococo, but reminiscent of the mannerist Bronzino. What remains of pure Classicism is the perfect line, the balance of composition and the indifferent coloring. As well, Gerard’s work anticipates Romanticism in choice of subject matter, as in his painting of 1845, “Ossian on the Banks of the Lora,” (below) which in its lackluster coloring, shows the growing popularity of what would later be described as the “Gothic,” and would be increasingly exploited by the Romantics, subjects such as Medieval Celtic heroes, misty hills, lowering skies, dark caves and Germanic gods, all very much in contrast to the diaphanous clarity of Classicism.

Gerard, “Ossian on the Banks of the Lora” 1845

The foreshadowing of the Romantic is also characterized by the introduction of gloomy sentiment in painting, a derivation of Catholicism which, in its post-Revolutionary guise, illustrates the irrationality and aestheticism of reactionary politics. Anne Louis Girodet’s “The Entombment of Atala” of 1808 (below), is in that respect clearly a pre-Romantic painting. The subject is based on a story of Chateaubriand. The maiden Atala, illuminated by a beam of light, is carried to her grave by a monk and a youth. The scene takes place within a dark grotto which looks out on a cross, high in the forest. The maiden has died for her faith. But although the subject matter looks forward to the Romantic sensibility, the smooth and static surface of muted local color shows no trace of the colorist appeal to emotion that will characterize the Romantic school in the art of Delacroix.

Girodet, “The Entombment of Atala” 1808

Strict adherence to Classical linearity infused with pre-Romantic sentiment and subject matter is a development of turn-of-the century painting in Germany as well as in France, and it is a development that will reach its ultimate conclusion in the drawings of William Blake in England. These artists preserved the form of Classicism, but utilized it for a diversion into subject matter that was different both in genre and in emotional appeal, and far more concordant with their own sentimental and ideological leanings. The Barbus School in Paris, for example, painters known as the Primitifs, are admirers of Homer, Ossian and the Bible, wherein they find the subject matter of their paintings. Similarly the Nazarenes, a school of German artists living in self-imposed exile in Rome, despise the Classical school, although they preserve its linear abstraction and formal stylistic strictures.

Von Schadow, “Die Klage Jacobs um Joseph” (Jacob’s Appeal to Joseph) 1816-17 Alte Nationalgallerie, Berlin

At the height of the movement of German Romantic painting the despotism of Classical linearity and form are still present. The fresco of Wilhelm von Schadow (1789-1862), above, “Jacob’s Appeal to Joseph,” of 1816-17, is a typical example of this inspirational genre. As well, Joseph von Fuehrich’s painting of 1836, “Joseph encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herd,” or Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s “Wedding at Cana” of 1820, are examples of the sentimentalism that invades the classical form in Germany in the Romantic period. In Germany the consequences of the French Revolution were absorbed and reflected in the Arts, as they were in Philosophy, through the medium of Religion. The craftsmanship of the Nazarenes points towards the pre-Raphaelite movement and seems to skip the full-fledged ambitions of Romanticism.

Von Fuehrich, “Joseph encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herd” 1836, Vienna

Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Wedding at Cana” 1820

Classicism of form and Romanticism of subject matter reach a wonderful conclusion in the drawings of William Blake (1757-1827), where Biblical subject matter is rendered in dark and muted colors with the precision of abstract Classical linearity.

Blake, “The Wise and the Foolish Virgins” 1826.

The transition from Classicism to Romanticism, from the Poussin school to the school of “irrationalism,” follows along another course, one which highlights technical variations alongside changes in content and appearance. A study for the painting “Vengeance of Ceres” by Pierre Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) exemplifies this trend towards a “painterly” craftsmanship inspired by the “irrationalist” Fragonard. Broad brush strokes accentuate a warm atmosphere in contrast to the cold and geometric aspect of the Davidian Classicists. The perfect line is gone. And though the subject is classical, a reference to the wrath of Ceres upon losing her daughter to Hades, the scene is a familiar one: the domesticity of a farm-house kitchen presided over by a homely woman who has none of the idealized characteristics of the god-like. The putto is the reminder of Fragonard and of the eighteenth century “rococo” style.

Prud’hon, Study for “The Vengeance of Ceres” in Friedlaender, from the Musee Eonnat at Bayonne

Prud’hon’s proto-Romanticism is also evident in his sketch from the 1820’s, entitled “L’Âme brisant les liens qui l’attachent à la terre.” (“Love breaks the bonds that attach her to the Earth”), a work that carries with it the heavy baggage of the Romantic psychology: the nostalgia for a better world. In this painting, a nude woman raises her outstretched arms from the solid earth towards the sky above her, striving for some manner of redemption through Love.

Prud’hon, “L’Âme brisant les liens qui l’attachent à la terre” (“Love breaks the bonds that attach her to the Earth”)

But the gradual evolution of the painterly techniques in a new, non-Classical, format required the jolt of History to come into its own as a fully fledged pre-Romanticism. We are much further down the road in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism in the work of Antoine Jean Gros (1771-1835), Baron Gros, made famous by his paintings of Napoleon. Gros was always and remained a great admirer of David, his master, and an enemy of the Romantics he himself would inspire. He took the timid innovations of David in the use and application of color and developed them into a full coloristic trend that led directly to Delacroix. For this he was called a “Rubenist,” meaning a painter inclined towards a flamboyant Baroque, as was Delacroix in his time.

The work of Gros belongs to the aftermath of the Revolution, a time when the portrayal of heroism became perhaps more urgent than before, during the endless wars of Napoleon. Gros met Napoleon in 1796 and was taken on as part of the military entourage of the Italian campaign so as to record the heroic events that unfolded there. The creation of the Cisalpine Republic appears in his paintings in the fullness of color, form and movement. His colorism is put to work in service of an ideal of military and patriotic heroism. He became the painter of Napoleon, whose image, below, is a portrait made from direct impression.

Gros, “Napoleon at Arcola” 1796-97, at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In his painting of 1808, entitled “Napoleon at the Field of the Battle of Eylau” he presents a sympathetic portrait of the Emperor as a compassionate hero. There is no evidence in the painting that Eylau would be the first time Napoleon’s armies were checked in the field, and the battle a most bloody affair, with inconclusive outcome and no tangible success. The painting is accordingly theatrical and propagandistic.

Gros, “Napoléon à la bataille d'Eylau”(“Napoleon at the Battlefield of Eylau”) 1808, at the Invalides

Napoleon’s campaigns were meant to safeguard and extend the Revolution, but the logic of war carried him beyond this initial goal and onto the road for Empire. His campaign in Northern Africa had the effect of facilitating another transition from Classicism to Romanticism in the Arts, namely, the discovery of the Orient, which would open the eyes of European artists to the colors of "exoticism" and the bright luminosity of the southern Mediterranean. Gros was with Napoleon in Africa. His painting of 1804, entitled “Plague of Jaffa” is another record of the Napoleonic campaign. It shows a compassionate, albeit still very heroic Napoleon, touching the sores of the plague victims, a reminder of the “doubting Thomas” of the Gospel. It is also a very realistic depiction of a busy and exotic locale, framed in the theatrical setting of a Gothic cloister. The painting foreshadows the later appeal of Orientalism to the Romantics, is in fact one of the iconic founding works of “Orientalism,” and points as well towards the later fascination of the Romantics with everything Gothic, to their appeal to sentiment, and to the use of color as a topical highlight. It is in every way a pioneering work. We will see that sprawling, suffering flesh again in the great canvasses of Delacroix.

Gros, “Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa” (“Napoleon visits the plague victims of Jaffa”) 1804, at the Louvre

The Revolution and its epic Napoleonic sequel in the painting of David and his successors inspired the later Romantic Movement in the arts almost despite itself. In a letter of 1822 written to David, Gros described the paintings of the Romantics as “impertinence et vagabondage” (impertinence and the work of vagabonds). Gros’ influence nonetheless prepared the way for a neo-Baroque, or neo-Rubenist, flourish of French painting. The stage for this renewed battle between the ‘rational’ and the ‘irrational’ in painting, between the heirs of Poussin and the heirs of Watteau, was set by the revival of Classicism effected by Jean Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), a transformation of Classicism as a last gasp of the Age of Reason.

Neo-Classicism after the Revolution

I must dedicate some space to Ingres because his work illustrates so clearly the divergence that occurred in early nineteenth century painting between what is referred to above as “linearity,” on the one hand, and “colorism” on the other. These two tendencies would lead respectively to neo-Classicism and to Romanticism. There are many other elements in Romanticism, Friedlaender calls them “irrational” elements, that go into the making of the movement, and these will be discussed in turn. But the divergence between linearity and colorism becomes fully apparent in the work of Ingres. Ingres’ emphasis on the primacy of drawing, on the perfect line, made him the antipode of Delacroix. Of course, these terms of reference only become wholly clear upon observation of works of art that can serve as typical examples.

Ingres, “Grande Odalisque” 1814, at the Louvre

What has happened to the classical formalism that had been so triumphantly wedded to the Revolution by David and his followers? The use of formalist classicism of line and color and Greco-Roman subject matter in the service of proclaiming the triumphs of the Revolution, which are evident in David’s painting of the Tennis Court Oath and the portrait of Marat, for example, has given way to the integration of certain ‘romantic’ elements into painting, such as abstractions from Archaic and primitive art and a shift from the Greek and Roman models to the work of Raphael and the High Renaissance, or, as in the case of the “Grande Odalisque” of 1814 (above), to an incipient Orientalism, albeit always within the rigid canon of the perfect line. Ingres is the leader of this shift.

As a “linear Classicist,” Ingres emerges as the principal enemy of Romanticism's baroque colorism. What exactly does this mean? The primacy of drawing in his work, the emphasis he placed on the integrity of the line, makes him a natural antipode to Delacroix, who, according to Ingres, “paints color as a fusion and dissolution of tones in light.” (quoted in Friedlaender, at p. 75). The purity of Ingres' line is evident in his great portraits, such as the 1822 portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin or that of the Countess D'Hausonville, of 1845 (detail below).

Ingres, Portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin, 1822, at the Louvre

Ingres, detail of his portrait of the Countess D'Hausonville, 1845, Frick Gallery

But though the purity of Ingres' line is the distinguishing characteristic of his Classicism, Ingres cannot altogether avoid the influence of those tendencies leading to the full-blown blossom of Romanticism. Thus, in the early portrait of the Countess of Tournon, he shows the romantic preoccupation with the grotesque in “a pitiless description” of his subject, in a “forceful and witty ugliness that is reminiscent of Goya's gruesome portraits.” (Friedlaender, at p. 79).

Ingres, Portrait of the Countess of Tournon, 1812, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Another aspect of Ingres' incipient “romanticism” is revealed by his interest in historical subjects, depicted in large canvases, which were most likely commissioned by the emigres and aristocrats who, upon their return from exile, sought to represent the glories of their past in the evocation of such historical and patriotic themes. Ingres considered himself to be primarily a painter of history, rather than a portraitist. An example of his historical canvases is the “Don Pedro de Toledo kissing the sword of Henry IV,” of 1814.

Ingres, “Don Pedro of Toledo kissing the sword of Henry IV” 1814

The historical, in turn, leads Ingres to another feature of pre-Romantic painting, the archaism of subject and form that is represented for example in the Louvre's “Oedipus and the Sphinx” of 1808 (below). Here the perfect line of Classicism serves to enhance a tale of antiquity with overtones of Orientalism. The antique subject no longer serves the republican ideals of the Revolution, as it did in the most popular works of David, but rather reveals an antiquarian propensity to entertain the contemporary art scene with famous tales of the past, depicted in the purist idiom of the Classicist canon.

Ingres, “Oedipus and the Sphinx” 1808, at the Louvre

By the 1820's, Ingres had become the personification of classicist conservatism in the French artistic establishment as well as the principal opponent of the Romantic Movement, now personified by Delacroix, and of its free from of execution and colorism. As Professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Ingres forbade his students to look at the Rubens paintings in the Louvre. He detested Delacroix, with whom he had to share honors in 1855 and a seat in the Academy in 1856. Ironically, the Romantics loved Ingres' late paintings, such as “The Turkish Bath” of 1862, below, which he painted at the age of eighty, and where the “imitation marble” figures convey that sense of exotic and sensual grace that was to fascinate the younger generation.

Ingres, “The Turkish Bath” 1862, at the Louvre


Théodore Géricault (1791-1824)

It must be clearly kept in mind that Romanticism is a complex of innovative techniques and a predisposition towards certain subjects that, although foreshadowed in the work of such painters as Prud'hon and Baron Gros, would not actually become a movement in the fine arts until the 1820's and 1830's. Those elements that were incidents and oddities in the paintings we have surveyed now became actualized and self-conscious: an emphasis on sentiment and emotion, an awakened interest in landscape and nature, a revival of interest in the past and in History, a taste for the ugly, the terrible, the cruel and the grotesque, a sympathy for ultramontane Catholicism and for the primitive and the archaic, now became a unified current of all combined. The work of Théodore Géricault represents this confluence of previously disparate tendencies that constitutes the first true expression of Romanticism in French painting. It had enormous influence on Delacroix and predisposed the public taste of the period towards the pure Romanticism of the mid-century.

Portrait of Théodore Géricault by Alexandre Colin (1816)

Like Constable in England, Géricault aggressively disclosed his “naturalism,” a penchant as well as a philosophy, causing it to emerge directly onto the canvas, though not in the form of clouds, trees or meadows. Rather, his inspiration, according to Friedlaender, came from the horses he rode as a boy in Rouen, and not from any particular school of painting. His gift of artistic observation, which in Constable was a philosophy and in Géricault more of an amusement, was directed to the service of art, and his passionate nature led him to the Baroque and to the paintings of Gros to discover his style. Like the younger Delacroix, who was born during the years of the Directory, Géricault was born on the third year of the Revolution. Both are children of the heroic age of the bourgeoisie.

Géricault, “Officer of the Imperial Guard” 1812, at the Louvre

Géricault, “Officer of the Imperial Guard” 1814, at the Louvre

The early work of Géricault is heavily influenced by Gros as much as by the glorious reflections of the Napoleonic period that were Gros' subject matter. The portrait of the Officer of 1812 (above), and particularly that of his horse, already shows the Rubenist tendency for chiaroscuro emphasis, baroque splendor and the erasure of the classical line. The “Wounded Curiassier” of 1814 (below) adds to this mix the emotionalism and sentimentality that would characterize Romanticism thereafter. The curiassier 'looks back.' The heroism of the Napoleonic Age, so splendid in the paintings of Gros, here bears a melancholic cast, a certain regret for the passing of time, for the end of glory, and the scene has thus been infused with the romantic element of nostalgia within a setting from the “irrationalist” baroque school.

Géricault, “Wounded Curiassier” 1814

Just as Constable studied the skies and cloud formations of his native countryside, Géricault studied the wild animals at the Jardin des Plantes, and his paintings of horses display the dynamism and passion he sought in their nature. He looked for Nature in horses and animals like Constable did in the trees and the clouds. Animals are the embodiment of romantic passion and serve as the vehicle for the idealization of Nature and of “the natural.” Géricault studied Anatomy for the purpose, and in Rome he observed the corso dei barberi, to find fodder for his naturalistic aesthetics.

Géricault, “Horse Races in Rome” 1817, at Lille

But all of Géricault's previous work pales before his masterpiece, the “Raft of the Medusa” of 1819. Here naturalism becomes realism. He brought back with him from Rome the influence of the High Baroque of Caravaggio, that intense naturalism in chiaroscuro, as well as the drama he witnessed in Michelangelo's sculpture and in the paintings of the Sistine Chapel, and it all went into the imaginative conception of his writhing bodies from the Medusa. The painting caused a revolution in perception, a sensation in the Paris art scene, and, in typical Romantic fashion, it cast Art into the arena of Politics.

Géricault, “Le Radeau de la Méduse” (“The Raft of the Medusa”) 1818-19, at the Louvre

The story of this painting is well known. Politics surrounded the wreck of the Medusa, a French navy schooner headed for Senegal that foundered off the coast of Mauritania. On July 5, 1816, the captain of the damaged vessel, the Vicomte de Chaumarey, ordered approximately 150 people onto a hurriedly built raft and cast them adrift on the high seas. In the thirteen days before the survivors were rescued, all but fifteen had died, having endured dehydration, madness and starvation. Incidents of cannibalism were reported. The scandal that followed involved the monarchy, as the recently restored King Louis XVIII was said to have been a party to the discredited captain's appointment.

All of this became grist for Géricault's creative mill. The painting became a vehicle for a critique of the Established Order, which Géricault too opposed. But it was the drama, more than the politics, which aroused his imagination. He opted for total realism. He interviewed survivors, studied the remains of the raft and all reports of the incident. He traveled to Le Havre to observe the sea, the light and the movement of waves and clouds, and he visited the morgue to study severed limbs and heads.

The pyramid of tortured and twisted bodies culminates in the figure that spots the ship that rescued them. Géricault wished to depict the drama of man in a contest with nature for survival. His intention was to depict heroism in an actual and historical setting. It is journalistic art. Each figure corresponds to one of the survivors, as reported by the press, but their likeness is arbitrary: one of the figures is the young Delacroix, his student and admirer.

The exaltation of emotion in this painting, the heroic subject matter, the ability to convey dynamic movement in a pyramid of immobility, these are all characteristic Romantic features, though the baroque coloring and the chiaroscuro technique show the past on which it mostly relies. But as a portraitist, Géricault is a full-fledged Romantic. This is further evident in his portraits of mad people. His friend, Dr. Etienne-Jean Georget, allowed Géricault to portray his patients at the Salpêtrière, where Freud made his discoveries on the subject of hysteria in 1885, a hospital for those that were then considered to be insane. The “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” of 1822 is one of these portraits. In his fascination for madness and for the pathos of human suffering, Géricault is the first of the Romantics.

Géricault, “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” 1822, in Ghent


Delacroix, Self-portrait, 1837, at the Louvre

Delacroix, Daguerreotype, 1842

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

Although Delacroix was influenced by the painting of Constable, the two artists seek something quite different through the medium of their work. Whereas the technique of Constable served an ideal of the past which the artist addressed by way of nostalgic regret and sought in his art to preserve an ideal of it that he felt was under threat, Delacroix put his art to the service of a different world: the better future. This new world, or the hope for this new world, he painted in bright color, and his “colorism” wrought a revolution of its own. It foreshadows the art of the Impressionists and of Van Gogh.

To bring color forth onto the center of the stage, Delacroix had to abandon the chiaroscuro of the Baroque which was so strong an influence on the work of his master, Géricault. There is no trace of the dark-toned realism, nor of the naturalism, of Caravaggio in the work of Delacroix, and although he carries on the tradition of Baroque grandeur and spectacle, it is the dynamism of color that constitutes his inheritance from that school. The dynamic of color and movement and for movement rendered by color, which would be his principal contribution to the art of Romanticism, no longer had any room for black shadows, no need for sharp contours and precise lines, nor for the static and statuesque of Neoclassicism. The revolution in the use and application of color made necessary a revolution in the form and overall design of the paintings as well, and, in some especially famous instances, revolution itself became their subject matter. For there is always a narrative contained in Delacroix's paintings. As in the music of Schumann or Berlioz, his art is most often subordinated to text.

Friedlaender has described Delacroix's paintings as intending to create a “river of force” that would contain and unify all of the tendencies of Romanticism, and this sublime ideal is revealed in the disturbed image of Dante surrounded by writhing bodies in Hell, an early work of 1822.

Delacroix, “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (“La Barque de Dante”) 1822

This is the raft of the Medusa without the chiaroscuro. Already in this work Delacroix begins his experimentation with color. Drops of water on the foreground figures contain juxtaposed touches of pure pigments in what appears as an attempt to reproduce the deflections from the prism of Newton.

Delacroix, detail from “Dante and Virgil in Hell” 1822 (reproduced from Lee Johnson, Delacroix, Norton, 1963)

Delacroix became famous in 1824 when his painting entitled “The Massacre of Chios” (“Scênes du Massacre de Chios”) was first made public. The painting is a mixture of sensuality and cruelty, and as such it poses the question of the dimensions of the Romantic spirit, its spread beyond the psychological spectrum of the individual self, and beyond, to areas which had heretofore been banished from the subject matter of artistic endeavor. The exaltation of sensuality and cruelty which is visible in this painting is a rebuke to Reason and to the Enlightenment, precisely the historical status quo that Delacroix was rebelling against.

Delacroix, The Massacre of Chios (1822-24)

The 'Massacre' is also Delacroix's first Wagnerian, in the sense of 'theatrical,' painting. The artist's own description of it as “scenes” points to that cinematographical quality, and also refers back to Géricault's artistic journalism in 'Raft of Medusa.' Indeed, the enormous panoramic canvas is disjointed and appears as a series of discreet individual scenes, such as the dying mother with child, on the extreme right of the canvas, or the embracing couple in the center. The artist has attempted to provide us with a panoramic narrative, a narrative about the Greek revolution. Delacroix's first theatrical painting is also his first tribute to Philhellenism, although it is unclear from a reading of the painting whether he is lamenting the fate of the Greeks or celebrating the triumph of the Turk. I will discuss the role played by the Greek revolution in the work of Delacroix below, but suffice it to say at this point that the exotic Orientalism of the subject matter derives from the political agenda of the artist and that the aesthetic is here subordinated to a text which, as opposed to that of “Barque de Dante,” is political.

Does innovation in technique follow the innovation in design and thematics? Delacroix has not reached his mastery of color at this point in his career. However, when the painting was first exhibited at the Louvre, in January of 1824, Delacroix had seen some paintings of Constable there, including “The Hay Wain,” and he was so impressed by Constable's color technique that he proceeded to re-touch his own painting prior to the opening of the exhibition. Constable made every part of his landscape partake of the light of the sky by scattering small touches of paint throughout the canvas and thus achieving a unity of flickering light and atmosphere. Delacroix attempted a similar technique, a primitive form of “pointillisme,” in order to enhance shadows by means of color. We see an example of this technique in the left arm of the old woman who is at the right-center of the canvas, where a combination of pink, orange-yellow and pale blue strokes form a shadow on her flesh, touched by spots of pure green and red. The technique is rather lame in its results, but it points to Delacroix's innovative use of color to create shadows which are evident in subsequent works, such as the “Sardanapalus.” From Constable's 'cool tint of English daylight,' Delacroix brings us into the bright colors of the Levantine landscape.

Delacroix, detail from “Massacre of Chios” 1824 (reproduced from Lee Johnson, Delacroix, Norton, 1963)

Delacroix, “La Morte de Sardanapale” (“The Death of Sardanapalus”) 1827, at the Louvre

The “Death of Sardanapalus” of 1827 also displays further experimentation with color that illustrates the evolution of Delacroix as the great colorist revolutionary of the Romantic Movement. In this great representation of cruelty, wherein are shown the slaughter of the despot's wives and animals as his own death approaches, the artist has made further innovations in his color techniques. For the first time we see shadows made by color. The relief on the foot of the male slave in the foreground to the right, for example, is achieved by applying multi-colored hatchings over the flesh tone and thus developing the shadows that reveal the contours of the foot.

Delacroix, detail from “The Death of Sardanapalus” 1827 (reproduced from Lee Johnson, Delacroix, Norton, 1963)

Delacroix's coloristic techniques are here spreading all over the canvas and are no longer discreet patches or drops. His color scheme becomes a feast for the eyes with the intricacy of a Persian rug.

In 1832 Delacroix traveled to Morocco. He studied the topography, the people and their costumes, and he discovered brilliant color in the intense light of the southern Mediterranean. Here he also discovered the principle of the complementarity of colors and found that shadows are made of color. He saw that tones could be divided into separate color surfaces so as to render hues and contrasts more vivid. This he made evident in his “Algerian Women in their Apartment” of 1834, where the vivid contrast of color in the rugs, pottery and costumes serve as vehicles for his documentary realism.

Delacroix, “Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement” (“Algerian Women in their Apartment”) 1834, at the Louvre

It is unknown whether or not Delacroix was familiar with Chevreul's Theory of the Complementarity of Colors, although there is a color circle in a sketch made for his “Taking of Byzantium” of 1840 (below) listing the three complementary pairs of colors, yellow-violet, blue-orange, and red-green. In the painting of 1845 known as “The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage,” Delacroix reveals a knowledge of the matter. When complementary colors are placed side by side in close and thin brush strokes they blend together in the eye and become a diffuse gray, more effective than a gray that is the result of a mix. This gray is visible in the painting of the Sultan of Morocco, diffused over the entire scene as the characteristic haze of summer in the Mediterranean, covering all objects with diaphanous mist and dust. It is the white sheen that Goethe saw in Sicily and that he describes in his Nausicaa Fragment of 1788:

“Ein weißer Glanz ruht über Land und Meer
Und duftend schwebt der Äther ohne Wolken.”

[A white sheen rests over land and sea
And the hazy aether floats without a cloud]

Delacroix, “The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage” 1845, at Toulouse

But the apotheosis of Delacroix's colorism is arguably his large canvas of 1840, entitled “The Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople,” which was commissioned by the bourgeois King, Louis Philippe, in 1838.

Delacroix, “Entrée des Croisés à Constantinople” (“Entry of the Crusaders in Constantinople” or “The Taking of Byzantium”) 1840, at the Louvre

Here, the explosion of color and luminosity is harnessed by a classicism of design. To prevent his colorism to run riot, Delacroix has strictly organized his painting according to static architectonic laws to provide a 'Rubenist' stability of form. The giant canvas, 13 feet by 14 ½ feet, displays a grid of verticals and diagonals that frame the dynamism of the color surfaces. The emphasis is on the verticals, columns and spears, and groups of suffering people on left and right are the props for the main triangular surfaces that focus on the horsemen (the left arm of the suppliant, for example, is carried up by the head and neck of the horse in the foreground).

Within this structure of vertical and triangular grids, the painting is entirely made of color. Instead of submerging the local colors in shadows, Delacroix has surrounded the color surfaces with half-tones which include the local colors. Thus, for example, the dark horseman on the left of the central group appears in shadow but is actually brightly colored. The chiaroscuro of the Baroque has disappeared. Delacroix has also revolutionized the use and application of color by using heavy brush strokes to project objects and thin, smooth strokes for receding planes. The head of the old man reveals on close look that the protuberances on his cranium are painted in large, thick strokes. That which is closest to the eye reveals more reflections and that which is more distant appears more mat. Similarly, the central horseman is made to seem closer to us by the abundance of light reflected from him.

Delacroix, detail from “Crusaders in Constantinople” 1840

Delacroix, detail from “Crusaders in Constantinople” 1840

At this stage in his career, Delacroix relies more on color to express his idea on the canvas than on composition, costume or landscape. All colors are related to one another in a harmony of relationships and complementaries. One color creates the overall dominant atmosphere. In the painting above, for example, the red cloak of the supplicant on the center-left side of the canvas sets the dominant tone, reflected on the lid of the gold casket behind him, and, by way of the horse's head and neck in the foreground, is taken up to the upper reaches of the central pyramid.

Like Goethe, Delacroix discovered that all shadows always contain color and that color is richest in shadow. By the time he painted the ceilings of the Palais Bourbon Library in 1843, his palette contained hardly any black. The door was open for the bright luminosity of the Impressionists.

Delacroix, Hesiod and his Muse. Ceiling of the Palais Bourbon Library (1843)

The Greek Revolution and Philhellenism

Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People” (“La Liberté guidant le Peuple”) 1830, at the Louvre

“Liberty Leading the People” (“La Liberté guidant le Peuple”) is a painting by Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris, which toppled the last Bourbon King of France, Charles X. A woman personifying Liberty leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution, the “tricouleur,” on one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other. Liberty is depicted as both an allegorical goddess-figure and a robust woman of the people. The painting caused a sensation. On November 10, 1793, Mlle. Aubrey bared her breasts in front of enthusiastic crowds during the Feast of Reason, a ceremony that was meant to inaugurate the replacement of the Christian religion. In time, the enemies of the Revolution will see this event as the symbol of the Terror and the of the rule of the rabble, “la mode revolutionnaire.” Nothing would seem to them more outrageous, nor more threatening to morality and civilization than the image of the bare-breasted woman. Wearing a Phrygian cap and brandishing a weapon, she became part of the iconography of revolution, inflaming sexual desire, inciting sex and profligacy, so as to propagate the mob. Now Delacroix revived her to symbolize yet another revolution.

Delacroix, detail from “Liberty Leading the People” 1830

The painting was considered vulgar and ignoble by the critics of the time. The pile of corpses underfoot simulate a pedestal above which Liberty strides out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. She is in our face. The fighters are from a mixture of social classes, ranging from the bourgeoisie represented by the young man in a top hat to the revolutionary urban worker, as exemplified by the boy holding pistols. What they have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes. Aside from the flag held by Liberty, a second, smaller tricouleur is visible in the distance, flying from the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame. The dynamic of the figures, the current of passion that accosts the viewer, makes this painting incandescent with revolutionary fervor. It became Delacroix's best-known work. He wrote to his brother: "My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject—a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her."

“La Grece sur les Ruines de Missolonghi” (“Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi”) 1826, at Bordeaux

Three years earlier he had painted for another country and for another revolution. Throughout the 1820's the Greek revolt became the issue that realigned traditional political alignments into new configurations. Already the revolt of the Serbs against Ottoman rule (1804-1817) had put Tsarist Russia on notice of potential subversion within the territories of its traditional enemy's empire by way of its Orthodox Christian allies. At the Congress of Laibach in 1821, the European leaders confronted the Greek revolt which had set the Morea (today known as the Peloponnesus) on fire since April.

Theodoros Vryzakis, Epanastasi (“Revolution”): Bishop Germanos raises the Greek Flag at Agia Lavra, on March 25, 1821 (1852, Benaki Museum, Athens)

Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the powers had joined together in a Quintuple Alliance (Great Britain, Russia, the Austrian Empire, Prussia, and Bourbon France) dedicated to stamp out revolution wherever it emerged. They were also joined together in a Holy Alliance, the Tsar's idea, dedicated to upholding the Christian religion. The Greek revolt caused a logical divergence to emerge between the two purposes, eventually leading to the break-up of the alliance system, for it was a revolution, but a revolution of Christians against the heathen Turk.

Delacroix, “Combat of the Giaour and the Pasha” (inspired by a poem of Lord Byron's) 1827, Art Institute of Chicago

For the moment, the powers did nothing and the sanguinary guerrilla war in Greece continued without resolution. By May of 1821, the Turks had lost the Morea. In retaliation, they hanged the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople and three archbishops, wearing their full vestments and regalia, on Easter Sunday, and three days later had their bodies thrown into the Bosphorous. Outrage spread throughout Europe and America.

“We are no longer fighting the Greeks, but all of Europe!” wrote the eminent Mustafa Reshid Pasha. Greek Committees were organized in all countries in support of the of the revolt and cargoes of provisions and arms were shipped to the free Greek ports. European and American volunteers appeared in Greece.

Philhellenism was bearing fruit. It was the first breach in the great Reaction that had followed the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and Liberalism was favored by the Greek crisis because of the Classical Education of the European and American elites, and because the religious issue played into the hands of the liberals by marshaling the support of their enemies, the conservatives and reactionaries. Before his overthrow in 1830, even Charles X, the last Bourbon King of France, had become sympathetic to the Greek cause.

Lord Byron and the Greek Guerrillas

Philhellenism was a Romantic affair. This 'love of Greek culture' was an intellectual fashion very much in vogue at the turn of the nineteenth century. A sanctified view of Antiquity, bolstered by the high ideals of the early revolutionaries, the Girondins, was reflected in the education of the elites, the manner in which they furnished their homes and the contents of their bookcases. In the period of political reaction and repression that followed the fall of Napoleon, when the liberal-minded, educated and prosperous bourgeois class of European societies found the revolutionary ideals of 1789–92 repressed by the restoration of old regimes at home, the idea of the re-creation of a Greek state on the hallowed territories of Antiquity became an attractive cause to embrace. The Classical ideal which had inspired revolutionaries was now removed to a safe distance in its Eastern Mediterranean setting. It proved to be a galvanizing force to artists, poets and intellectuals, and not only in Europe.

Edward Everett (1794 – 1865)

Edward Everett was an American philhellene. Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1794, he graduated from Harvard University in 1811 and stayed there as a tutor from 1812 to 1814, while he studied Theology. In 1814 he was ordained pastor of the Brattle Street Unitarian Church in Boston, but returned to Harvard as professor of Greek Literature in 1815. It was as a professor of the Classics at Harvard in the 1820's that he affiliated with the Philhellenic cause and, in his capacity as publisher of the North American Review, published his correspondence with the Greek patriots in the war zone, including appeals for arms and gold, and continued to make pronouncements in favor of the recognition of the Revolution. It was a cause that was welcome to the Whigs and their leaders in Congress, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, though American support of the Greek revolt did not lead to active participation in the diplomatic war. President Monroe was more inclined to forgo any involvement in European affairs as long as the European powers abstained from any incursions in the American continent. Everett remained in touch with the Philhellenic Committees until the end of the war in 1827. Other Americans, such as George Jarvis of New York, Captain Jonathan P. Miller of Vermont and Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician from Boston, actually traveled to Greece and joined the revolutionary forces there.

Portrait of Lord Byron

But the most famous of all Philhellenes was to be Lord Byron whose death in Missolonghi became the symbol of Liberal Europe's sacrifice on behalf of the Greek Revolution. Byron arrived in Greece in 1823, at a time when the war for independence appeared to be going nowhere. Civil war among Greeks in the Morea was in stalemate. The Turkish armies were still in the North finalizing their siege of Ali Pasha at Iannina. Ibrahim Pasha's Egyptian invasion was still in the future. Byron was idled by the swamps off Missolonghi.

Missolonghi from the lagoon

View of Missolonghi from Kalydon

Byron had been in Greece before in 1810 and his reputation as a famous Romantic poet and lover of Greece preceded him on his return. Although he was very helpful to the cause, both in terms of monetary aid and as a beacon of hope and rallying cry for European Philhellenes, his activities at Missolonghi were futile and he was perpetually frustrated in his dealings with the Greek guerrilla chieftains. He provided concrete assistance in commissioning several seagoing war vessels that proved to be useful in the eventually successful war for independence, but his sacrifice was ambiguous. He was not a well man.

Byron at age 35

The death at Missolonghi

In his discussions with the Greek politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos, Byron had decided to undertake an attack on the Turkish fortress at Navpaktos, across the Morea on the Gulf of Corinth, but before the expedition could set sail, he fell ill with fever and failed to recover. Primitive methods of medical care, such as constantly bleeding the patient, aggravated his condition. He died on April 19, 1824. Thereafter, the Greek forces at Missolonghi were besieged in 1825 by the combined armies of Reshid Pasha and Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. After a year of relentless enemy attacks, and facing starvation, the people of Missolonghi decided to break out of the city. Their plans were betrayed, and the subsequent massacre decimated the very few survivors still alive within the city. The brutal end of the Greek resistance at Missolonghi caused outrage throughout Europe and America.

“La Grece sur les Ruines de Missolonghi”

Delacroix's 1826 painting of Greece expiring on the ruins of Missolonghi, now in Bordeaux, has the double meaning of the death of Byron and of the massacre of the Greek resistance in the city the year before. But it was Byron, not Greece, that had expired in Missolonghi. It was the hope of the Philhellenes that died, and the Romantic ideal along with it. The painting is at least the second tribute paid by Delacroix to the cause of Greek revolution. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, the painting displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Turks. A hand is seen at the bottom, the body having been crushed by rubble. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of freedom against tyrannical rule. This event interested Delacroix not only for his sympathies with the Greeks, but because Byron, whom Delacroix greatly admired, had died there as well.

There is no mistaking the enormous influence of the Byronic agon in the minds of his contemporaries. This is Goethe's paean to Byron in Faust II, where Byron is Euphorion, the child of Faust and Helen of Troy:

Chorus (Dirge)

Not alone! – No matter where you are,
For we believe in following you:
Oh! Though from the day you part,
Not one heart will part from you.
We scarcely wish to mourn you, even,
We sing in envy of your fate:
To you the clearest light of heaven,
Gave song and courage, true and great.

Ah! You were born for earthly fate,
High descent and supreme power:
Youth, sadly, while you went astray,
Was torn from you in its first hour!
You saw the world, with clearer vision,
You understood the yearning heart,
The glow of lovely woman’s passion,
And all singing’s rarest art.

Yet, irresistibly, you ran free,
In nets of indiscipline: you
Divorced yourself violently,
From custom, and from rule:
Until at last, through thinking deeper,
You gave courage greater weight,
And wished to win to splendor,
But that could not be your fate

Whose then? – The gloomy question,
That destiny itself conceals,
While in days unblessed by fortune,
Our people’s silent blood congeals.
But new songs will refresh them,
No longer bow them to the floor,
The earth shall see them once again,
As it saw them once before.

Goethe, Faust II, Act III (Felsenhöhlen)

Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion

"Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though linked among a fettered race,
To feel at least a patriot's shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush--for Greece a tear....

Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade--
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning teardrop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swanlike, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne'er be mine--
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine! "

(George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece)

Monument to Lord Byron in Athens:
Hellas to Byron (1896)

View from Sounion down into the Aegean Sea

Solidarity: A cause worth dying for: Hellenism and “Freedom.”

“La Grece sur les Ruines de Missolonghi” - The painting represents the moral, or political, dimension of a new form of Romantic expression, which is the emotional foundation of the work of Delacroix. In the Introductory lecture I made reference to the epic paintings depicting the Latin American revolutions, as well as to the hymnology of those revolutions. I remind you of the embrace of San Martin and O’Higgins after the Battle of Maipu. This is the epic Romantic feeling, a far cry from nostalgia for the past, but of psychological and subjective origin nonetheless. It is another aspect of Romanticism: the Nostalgia for a better future.

As well, I emphasized in my lecture on Constable the significance of the turbulent sky in the painting of Salisbury Cathedral. Now we have a different turbulent sky in the paintings of Delacroix. I refer you to the dark and sinister sky in these paintings of Delacroix. The dark and stormy sky above Dante in Hell, and above the blood-drenched soil of Chios, is visible once again in Missolonghi. Janson writes about this painting: “Here the complicated apparatus of the Massacre [of Chios] has been pared down to essentials, with a great gain in visual and emotional unity: a dead Greek fighter lies crushed among marble blocks in the foreground; a Moor triumphs; the defenseless maiden is fully as appealing as a martyred saint. Sonorous color – creamy whites and flesh tones set off by deep blues and reds – and energetically fluid brushwork show Delacroix to be a “Rubéniste” of the first order. Contemporary beholders, remembering that Lord Byron had died at Missolonghi, surely found in the picture a special pathos.” (Janson, History of Art, at 482)

Another example of Delacroix’ political preoccupation is his great portrait (now at the Louvre) of the revolutionary Polish exile, lionized concert pianist and posthumously celebrated composer, Frederic Chopin. Chopin was an exile in Paris because of his participation in the Polish revolt against the Russian occupation of his country in 1830.

Delacroix, Portrait of Frederic Chopin (1838)

Delacroix’ painting reflects again a tendency towards escapism in Romanticism, a detachment from the world in search of inspiration in History, Literature, the Near East, the excitement and passion of revolution and hopeless political sacrifice, the domain of the imagination, where the artist sought refuge from the Industrial Revolution and the dangerous reactionary aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The death of Byron had no effect on the Greek War of Liberation. The revolution of 1830 in France led to the dreary rule of the bourgeois King, Louis Philippe, in itself a cause of a greater revolution in 1848. The political agenda of the Romantics remains behind for us only as Art.