If you only know two or three paintings by Eugène Delacroix that’s probably because many of his other works, though they are certainly weird and wonderful, are not always focused or interesting. As I discovered at the Louvre’s major Delacroix retrospective this week, outside of Liberty Leading the People (1830) and paintings such as A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother (1830), there are only a few paintings that reach these standards. Delacroix is clearly an artist whose reputation rests on the magnificence of a handful of works and his favour with the right people.
As is the case with every exhibition at the Louvre, the retrospective brings together a breathtaking number of Delacroix’s works, and so the size in itself makes the exhibition worth a visit. The breadth of the work also allows us to appreciate the vastness of Delacroix’s concerns, his constant search for commissions, and his willingness to paint whatever is asked of him. Also of interest is the extent to which Delacroix was inspired by writing and writers, poetry from different cultures, criticism and essays. This can be taken both as a way to account for the heterogeneity of his style and the sometimes tenuous connections of his painting to the history of art. The paintings and written documents are presented side by side to convince visitors that Delacroix was as interested in ideas as he was in painting and visual style.
|Eugène Delacroix, Self-Portrait in Green Vest, vers 1837|
|Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827|
|Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1849|
Even when he paints the intimate subject of women in their boudoir in Morocco, he blows up the image to the size of a history painting. Not only is the scene is painted on a massive 85 x 112cm canvas, but as the twenty-first century viewers, we can’t help wondering about the ethics of Delacroix’s visit to the harem, painting women unveiled, unguarded and some of them quietly reflective. Surely, the unconventionality of his Morocco paintings must have attracted attention in their day? But given that the resultant paintings are among the clearest of Delacroix’s visions, and we are told that he was invited into their boudoir, I had to overlook my twenty-first century prejudices of nineteenth century images. Nevertheless, visitors to the exhibition will be drawn to the fact that Delacroix’s work is at its most exciting when he paints women in various stages of undress and vulnerability.