Delacroix: Revolutionary fervour

Published 29 February 2016

As an exhibition opens on Delacroix and his legacy, Martin Oldham draws out three qualities that mark him as a modern artist.

  • From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Defying convention

    Spurning the repressive doctrines and practices of traditional academic training, and the cool neo-classicism favoured by the art establishment, Euge?ne Delacroix adopted a highly individualistic and experimental approach to painting. Although some of the French artist’s works addressed sacred or historical subjects, his method of depicting them was revolutionary, taking the feelings evoked by the stories as a stimulus for his imagination and creative expression. He painted at least six versions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1853; pictured), for example, reworking the subject as a personal exploration of its emotional power. “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion,” observed the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, “and coldly determined to seek the means of expressing it in the most visible way.”

  • Dynamic brushwork

    Delacroix conveyed his emotional engagement with the drama he was depicting through his vigorous and loose handling of paint. The sketch-like quality of some of his paintings stood in radical opposition to the highly finished productions of most of his peers, and notably those of his arch-rival, Ingres. But Delacroix believed that vagueness of execution gave room for the viewer’s imagination to “finish” the painting. For him, the materiality of the paint was, he said, “only the pretext, only the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator.”

  • Command of colour

    Delacroix was revered by subsequent generations of artists for his innovative manipulation of colour. He experimented with colour theory, observing that no hue existed in isolation, but would always be altered by neighbouring complementary or contrasting colours. His bold deployment of colour in Christ on the Sea of Galilee had a profound impression on Vincent van Gogh, who saw the painting in a Paris saleroom in 1886. The Dutch artist later recalled: “Ah – E. Delacroix’s beautiful painting – Christ’s boat on the sea of Gennesaret, he – with his pale lemon halo – sleeping luminous – within the dramatic violet, dark blue, blood-red patch of the group of stunned disciples. On the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame.” Delacroix’s conviction, taken up by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, that sentiments could be expressed through the arrangement of colours, forms and painterly gestures would ultimately lead the way to non-narrative and then abstract art.

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