Eugène Delacroix

Charenton-Saint-Maurice 1798 - Paris 1863

One of the pivotal figures of the French Romantic movement, Delacroix was a master of historical and literary subjects on a small and large scale, intimate and grand portraits, nudes, dramatic depictions of Arab horsemen, exterior scenes and domestic interiors in North Africa, the natural world at its most brutal, still lifes and religious subjects. The style of his first master, Pierre Guérin, bridged the developments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Guérin himself had studied under the academic neo-classicist Regnault, but by the time Delacroix entered his studio, he had already demonstrated his own susceptibility to Romantic impulses. Delacroix broke away from the highly finished technique of his master early on, however, and his bold use of color, his delicate but fluid brush and intense palette set him apart from almost all his contemporaries. Delacroix’s landscapes, before his travels in North Africa in the early 1830s, were merely the backdrops for his ambitious subject pictures, freely painted but with little attempt at naturalism. Two exceptional paintings, however, done in the 1820s have more extensive landscapes: the first in the background of the affectionate portrait of Delacroix’s elder brother Charles, relaxing in front of his small cottage in the village of Le Louroux (Private collection, France), dating from 1822; the second the setting for a Still life of Game and Lobsters for General Count de Coëtlosquet in 1826-27 (Paris, Louvre). Both these are topographical and the latter in particular recalls the landscapes of Constable that Delacroix would have first known in the mid-1820s. There is little evidence that he paid much attention to the landscape elements of his figurative exteriors, however, until later in his career. Delacroix’s Moroccan sketchbooks show numerous small watercolor and pencil landscape views, aspects of which were employed in the finished North African subject pictures that he produced from 1834 onwards. In his exterior scenes the backgrounds gradually become more distinctive, so that by the late 1850s works such as Ovid among the Scythians, the Death of Lara and Erminia and the Shepherds each include extensive landscapes, which although imaginary, would seem to be based on his earlier sketches. In his North African landscapes Delacroix was able to employ the full range of his extensive palette with notable success; several critics for example, particularly noted the landscape in The Riding Lesson, of 1854, when the work was show at the Universal Exhibition of 1855. His grandest Arab scene is the Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, commissioned by the state in 1845 and sent to the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse where it remains. Although Delacroix had witnessed the scene portrayed on his 1832 Moroccan trip, it had taken place in a more modest setting. Here the artist has placed the Sultan before the walls of the city of Meknes, adding to the grandeur of the scene. He included a topographical view again in his View of Tangiers with Two Seated Arabs of 1852-53, which shows a statuesque Moroccan woman standing in the foreground, looking back at a distant view of the city walls. The later Arab scenes with landscape backgrounds were suffused with dazzling colors – emerald greens, brilliant yellows, liquid blacks and rich blues – that served to emphasize the white robes of the Arab horsemen and figures which populate them and attracted the attentions of the Salon critics. It is not to his contemporary experience that he looked at this time, however, but back to his Moroccan journey years earlier, a journey that evidently remained as vivid in his mind as when he had first travelled there. His diaries and sketchbooks provide ample evidence of the effect this had on his art, and even in his last great North African subject, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains of 1863 (Washington, National Gallery, see fig. 1), he has masterfully employed this experience to great advantage.