Delacroix does not “do it for me.”
Btw, have you heard “Lord, Do It For Me,” with its increasingly fervent request? The James Cleveland version:
However, he did it for Van Gogh and other modernists and with that in mind, I have spent some time at The Met during the holiday season wandering in the (why-so-dark?) exhibition space. How did these paintings inspire modernism? The modernists did not say “Wow, Delacroix proves that epic historical painting is so over!” But that’s what it seems like in retrospect. The next great phase in painting did everything that he didn’t: look to the everyday, make the painting on the canvas in a more immediate way with no research for its own sake: ; they reenvigorated figurative non-narrative painting.
A Delacroix landscape, with a few exceptions, looks like a preparatory sketch and a Van Gogh never does.
The paintings consistently disappoint in what I want them to do. In Medea Killing her Children I want to go to the details, the expression on the children’s faces, for example, and one of them is obscured by an awkward arm and the other is hidden; Medea’s eyes are shadowed too. This happens repeatedly throughout the show.
In Shipwreck…,, I begin to feel something for the poor wretch, hands outstretched, grasping the gunwale on the left, but the feeling dissipates as I scan across the clump of central figures. I feel the effort and the research but no accrual of emotional effects.
Why is Delacroix thwarting me this way?
If I accept that this thwarting is intentional, i.e. that the sustained emotional experience of the viewer was not his aim, what remains is something like a single frame from a movie, because in a movie the emotion would be expressed through a sequence of images and, because I do know the stories very well—as did his audience—they played in my mind both forwards and backwards and led to some unexpected thoughts.
Medea…, for example: Medea is not killing her children but she has grasped both of the wiggling children in one powerful arm, in the other hand the knife.
“Why shouldn’t she kill them?” In fact she doesn’t even have to kill them, she can just walk away like the father did with the same perhaps crueler result.
Or raise children that will be less likely to succeed? Check out this 2017 NPR show:
You can see where this is going—perhaps it’s not quite an irrelevant literary subject.
Jesus Calms…, where Jesus sleeps calmly and the disciples freak out also led me down a path of memories and philosophy. One memory was of a canoe excursion I took with Martina (who writes The Defeatist for this publication) during which a wind came up and threatened to blow us out to sea—I laughed hysterically, she screamed she would never forgive me and we both paddled furiously. As for the philosophy, well, we seem to be in a storm right now—should we be “of so little faith”?
Still wandering in the dark here, I wonder if Delacroix was knowingly making a last great heroic struggle to connect—with great stories, great events, the Bible and the myths. I don’t think I’m the only painter to regret that that connection is so severed now that his work might wrongly be considered to be illustration. People from varying classes and educational levels were completely familiar with the Bible and Shakespeare and for that matter, colonial experience—he was not only working for an elite, as many painters seem to do now.
Two exceptions who do make that attempt to connect to a broad popular culture through images of the soaps and the movies, in other words through popular narrative, are Dawn Clements and Angela Dufresne.
Peter Schjeldahl, in his New Yorker review of the show, says about Delacroix, “But I have trouble with artists—Rubens very much included—who seem driven mainly to be admired.”
Without liking Delacroix, this seems a harsh and petty judgment. I don’t see Delacroix even as a virtuoso, or shallow in any way—he was so hard-working, he wanted to delight his audience and take them to foreign lands to play with the tigers, cavort in the harems and ride into battle.
Another thing that convinces me of this was his humility. In a journal entry in 1847, he notes advice that Corot gave him:
“He told me to go a little beyond myself, giving myself over to whatever might come, that’s what he does most of the time. He does not accept that you can create beauty by taking endless pains.”
Delacroix was forty-nine years old and very successful. Corot was younger and not successful and yet Delacroix asked him for advice, took it seriously (and it was good advice) and also fixed him up with a patron. Does that sound like a painter who only wants to be admired?
What might also have inspired the modernists are the painted sketches. With their loose paint handling, they might have been a revelation seen in their own time as they mostly aren’t for me now except maybe this one.
Paintings are not photo lightboxes or films that are washed out by ambient light. A Delacroix show is an event that artists might want to draw and have a hard time of it in the dark. See The Pencil Review: