Museum  September 25, 2018

Comprehensive Delacroix Retrospective Debuts at the Met

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798– 1863). Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830. Oil on canvas. 130 x 195 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was one of the greatest creative figures of the 19th century. Through his choice of daring subjects and compositions, a vibrant palette, and bold brushwork, he set into motion a cascade of innovations that changed the course of art. As Van Gogh wrote in 1885: “What I find so fine about Delacroix is precisely that he reveals the liveliness of things, and the expression and the movement, that he is utterly beyond the paint.” Although Delacroix is celebrated as the embodiment of the Romantic era, much remains to be understood about his life and prolific career. Opening September 17 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Delacroix is the first comprehensive retrospective in North America devoted to the artist. Visitors will discover a protean genius who continues to set the bar for artists today.

© RMN– Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798– 1863). Self-Portrait with Green Vest, ca. 1837. Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 21 7/16 in. (65 x 54.5 cm). Musée du Louvre, Paris.

“Delacroix was a transformative figure in the history of European painting, and his influence significantly shaped what we think of today as modern.” said Max Hollein, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “This exhibition is a rare opportunity to experience the breathtaking talent and remarkable scope of one of the most creative forces of the nineteenth century.”

Delacroix is made possible by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.

Additional funds are provided by the Janice H. Levin Fund, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, The Florence Gould Foundation, and the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund.

It is supported by an Indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée du Louvre.

This historic exhibition will illuminate Delacroix’s restless imagination in all its complexity through more than 150 paintings, drawings, prints, and manuscripts—many of which have never been shown before in the United States. In addition to works from The Met collection, the exhibition will include exceptional loans from the Musée du Louvre and some 60 museums and private collections throughout Europe and North America. Among the highlights are Delacroix’s landmark works Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), The Battle of Nancy (1831), Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), Medea About to Kill Her Children (1838), and The Lion Hunt (1855).  

Exhibition Overview

Encompassing 12 galleries, the exhibition will provide a largely chronological overview of the three main phases of Delacroix’s four-decade career. The first phase centers on his formative years, from 1822 to 1834, dominated by a thirst for novelty, fame, and freedom. The second focuses on 1835 to 1855, marked by his exploration of historical themes informed by large mural commissions, as well as his triumph at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. The third and final phase follows Delacroix’s growing interest in nature and the creative role of memory, up until his death in 1863.

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). Basket of Flowers, 1848–1849. Oil on canvas. 42 1/4 x 56 in. (107.3 x 142.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876– 1967), 1967 (67.187.60).

Delacroix regarded the Salon—the annual (later biannual) state-sponsored exhibition of contemporary art held at the Louvre—as the most effective venue for gaining recognition. In a manner that echoes how the Parisian public first encountered the artist’s genius at the Salons of the 1820s, visitors to The Met’s exhibition will be confronted by two monumental canvases representing the poles of Delacroix’s imagination: an allegory of war, Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), and a Biblical subject, Christ in the Garden of Olives (1824–26). The latter has been removed from its perch high on the wall of the Parisian church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis and cleaned especially for the exhibition, giving visitors the first opportunity in a generation to examine it closely.

Having defined the scale of Delacroix’s ambition through large paintings, the exhibition then introduces him through images of the artist emblematic of the Romantic era. This gallery will be centered on his self-portrait of about 1837, which aptly conveys two descriptions of the artist by writers who knew him. Théophile Silvestre observed: “Delacroix’s character is violent and sulfurous, but his self-possession is total”; Charles Baudelaire reflected: “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.” This work—the image by which Delacroix wished to be remembered—will be flanked by other self-depictions as well as portraits of historical figures that show his sense of identity with artists and poets of the past. Born into a distinguished family but orphaned at age 16, Delacroix grew very close to friends and relatives, many of whom are featured in some of his most illuminating portraits. Prominent among these will be the standing, life-size Louis Auguste Schwiter (1805–1889).

© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB), Brussels

Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863). Apollo Victorious over the Serpent Python, sketch, ca. 1850. Oil on canvas. 54 1/8 × 40 3/16 in. (137.5 × 102 cm). Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

For the first time ever in the United States, a representative selection of notebooks that made up Delacroix’s handwritten Journal will be displayed, on loan from the leading repository of the artist’s writings, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris. From schoolboy musings to mature reflections on the nature of beauty, these manuscripts reveal one of the great painter-writers in the history of art, particularly in accounts of his early career, from 1822 to 1824, and again beginning in 1847.

The presentation then moves to a close examination of Delacroix’s progressive mastery of materials in the 1820s—including oil paint, pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor—as he underwent formal artistic training under the prominent Neoclassical painter Pierre Narcisse Guérin. Of critical importance during this time were Delacroix’s breakthroughs in rendering the textures, hues, and luminosity of human skin, as seen in his studies of Mademoiselle Rose (ca. 1820–23) and the multiracial model Aspasie (ca. 1824). His focus on the human form, exotic objects, and copies after old masters will round out this gallery’s display.

Delacroix had a lifelong fascination with animal physiognomy as a window onto human states of mind. Beginning in 1828, he studied animals at the menagerie in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, an important center of scientific inquiry. The exhibition will provide a nimble, intimate account of Delacroix’s approach to wild cats, horses, and humans as he worked across media. The centerpiece will be Young Tiger Playing with its Mother (1830), Delacroix’s masterwork in the genre. The violence implicit in these works will be amplified in the next gallery, devoted to scenes of war and violence. While some of these works are inspired by the poems of Lord Byron and contemporary novels, others are based on historical events. Highlights will include The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829), The Death of Sardanapalus (the large oil sketch of 1826–27 and the 1845–46 version) and the immersive, nearly 12-foot-wide Battle of Nancy (1831).

By the mid-1820s, Delacroix’s growing renown led to offers to contribute illustrations to important literary publications. His inventiveness as a printmaker will be evident in 17 lithographs he produced for an 1828 French edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. This recently identified set, in the collection of the Petit Palais, Paris, since 1902, has never previously been exhibited in its entirety. It consists of proof impressions with lively sketches in the margins that were later effaced when the illustrations were printed for publication. These will be displayed alongside preparatory drawings and a bound copy of the final book to reveal the extent of Delacroix’s working process.

In 1832, on the heels of the French invasion of Algeria, Delacroix accompanied a diplomatic mission to neighboring Morocco. Having never traveled to Italy to experience the remnants of classical antiquity firsthand—a requisite trip for most artists—Delacroix was captivated by what he understood as the “living antiquity” he encountered in North Africa. He drew numerous portraits of the people he met, including the never-before-exhibited Jewish Woman of Tangier and Schmareck, Tanner at Tangier (both 1832). He submitted three paintings based on this journey to the Salon of 1834: Street in Meknes (1832), Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), and Collision of Arab Horsemen (1833/34). The jury, however, rejected the last painting, and thus The Met’s exhibition will be the first time that these three works will be shown together, as the artist intended.

Following his return from Morocco, Delacroix received official commissions to execute major decorative projects in prestigious public spaces. This activity infused a new sense of gravitas in his work and led him to produce large-scale paintings. Depicting an episode from Greek mythology, Medea about to Kill Her Children (1838) is a meditation on the abandonment of reason, while Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women (1836) represents its opposite: the tender and compassionate treatment of a Roman martyr. The pairing in this exhibition of these two colossal, thematically related masterworks highlights a key, if not widely recognized, highpoint of Delacroix’s long career.

As Delacroix diversified his output from the 1840s onward, he embraced still lifes, floral compositions, and scenes from Renaissance literature. The artist’s signature coloristic brilliance will be evident in the seminal still life Basket of Flowers (1848–49), which underwent a yearlong treatment in The Met’s Department of Paintings Conservation to remove a disfiguring layer of old varnish. Nearby will be two vibrant oil sketches for Apollo Slays the Python (both ca. 1850), executed in preparation for the ceiling of the Louvre’s Gallery of Apollo. The exuberance of these paintings will stand in sharp contrast to the somber palette employed in paintings of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion and of Christ’s mourners displayed in an adjacent gallery.

A major development in Delacroix’s later work was the increased role of landscape and seascape in his artistic vision, as seen in The Shipwreck of Don Juan (1840), The Sea at Dieppe (1852), and an ensemble of studies related to his final large-scale mural project, Jacob Wrestling the Angel (1850), at the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice. The exhibition will conclude with The Lion Hunt (1855), painted for Delacroix’s triumphant retrospective at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. The Lion Hunt, which survives as a massive fragment after its upper section was destroyed in a fire in 1870, conveys Delacroix’s lifelong preoccupation with Rubens, Orientalist subjects, battles, and animals—that is, with mining the past on his own terms and investing it with new life. On this final note, exhibition visitors will come away with a broadened appreciation for Delacroix’s remarkable oeuvre and its enduring appeal.