Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugene Delacroix

French painter, b. at Charenton-St-Maurice, near Paris, April 26, 1798; d. August 13, 1863

Click to enlarge

Delacroix, FERDINAND-VICTOR-EUGENE, French painter, b. at Charenton-St-Maurice, near Paris, April 26, 1798; d. August 13, 1863. He was the son of Charles Delacroix, minister of foreign relations under the Convention from 1795 to 1797, and a grandson, by his mother, of Aben, the famous pupil of Boulle. From his earliest childhood his love for music was intense and exercised throughout his life a decided influence on his work. He always attributed his success in his representation of the Magdalen (Saint-Denis of the Holy Sacrament), fainting from grief for her crucified Master, to an impression made upon him by the canticles of the month of May; while it was under the emotion produced by the music of the Dies Irae that he brought forth the terrible angel of the fresco of Heliodorus (Saint-Sulpice). After his studies at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, he entered the school of Fine Arts in Paris and studied there under Guerin.

The extreme poverty which fell to the lot of Delacroix after the death of his parents in 1819 drove him to the production of lithographs, caricatures, etc. In the mean time, however (1818), a distinct promise of his future eminence had been manifested in the first of his recorded canvases, “Roman Matrons Sacrificing Their Jewelry to Their Country”. Against the advice of his master, Guerin, he exhibited at the Salon of 1822 the “Dante and Virgil”, which immediately had the effect of bringing to its creator notoriety, if not fame, for it aroused a whirlwind of critical controversy. In the then existing state of French public opinion in matters of art, it is not wonderful that Delacroix should have failed to win the much-coveted Prix de Rome, for which he was a competitor; but two years later (1824) his “Massacre of Scio” renewed the strife of the critics which his earlier Salon picture had first kindled, and brought him a little nearer to the goal of success. The conservative classicists condemned his work, as they condemned that of all the new romanticists, for its contempt of established traditions; the subsequent triumph of romanticism brought with it in good time his personal triumph, to be eventually signalized and confirmed by the acquisition of the two bitterly criticized early canvases, the “Roman Matrons” and the “Massacre of Scio”, for the national collection of the Louvre. But only after the Revolution of 1830 did official recognition and approval visit him. In the year next following that event he traveled through Spain and Morocco, whence he brought back an inspiration of Southern light, color, and vital force which was to make itself effectively felt in all his later and more widely known work. The new government made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor; the day of nineteenth-century romanticism had begun in France, and Delacroix, always a leader of this new school, was fairly arrive. From the exhibition of his “Murder of the Bishop of Liege” in the Salon (1831) his progress was never seriously interrupted, in spite of incessant criticism, until, in 1857, it brought him into the fold of the Institute of France. It was during this quarter of a century of his career that he produced those great compositions on medieval and Arabian themes with which his name is nowadays most commonly associated.

The bitter opposition which Delacroix had all his life to endure drew him into discussions in which he displayed a real literary talent. No one who would arrive at a true idea of the man should omit the perusal of his essays on art and his correspondence. The number of his pictorial works is immense, aggregating about 9140 subjects, classified by Ernest Chesneau as follows: 853 canvases, 1525 pastels, water-colors, etc., 6629 drawings, 24 engravings, 109 lithographs, and 60 albums. The following may be mentioned as marking important moments in the development of his genius: “The 28th of July, 1830” (1830); “Charge of Arab Cavalry” (Montpellier Museum—1832); “Algerian Women” (Louvre—1834); “Jewish Wedding in Morocco” (Louvre—1841); “Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders” (Versailles Museum—1841); “Muley-abd-el-Rahman leaving his palace at Mequinez 3) (Toulouse Museum—1845); “The Two Foscari” (Collection of the Duc d’Aumale at Chantilly—1855). To his early period belong the famous litho-graphs of Faust which brought him warm praise from Goethe himself. “Sardanapalus” (Salon, 1828), another early chef-d’oeuvre, drew from Vitet the remark that “Delacroix etait devenu la pierre de scandale des Expositions”, while Delecluze called it “une erreur de peintre”. “Richelieu Saying Mass”, was ordered by the Duke Louis Philippe d’Orleans, while “The Death of Charles the Bold” was ordered by the Minister of the Interior. “The Murder of the Bishop of Liege”, the canvas which actually assured his contemporary fame, was probably the best of all his pictures. From this on, masterpieces follow one another until adverse criticism could no longer seriously affect his position in the world of art.

Appreciation of His Work.—The real founder of the nineteenth-century French School of art, Delacroix stands alone and unsurpassed. The difficulties he had to contend with came from his forcing upon an ignorant public a new school wholly opposed to that of David, which was insincere in its coldness and artificiality, conventional, and absolutely unsympathetic. Though one can find in Delacroix almost all the best points of men like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Correggio, from the moment he shook off the influence of Gericault—so manifest in “Dante and Virgil”—he threw himself entirely on the resources of his own genius. On the eve of finishing the “Massacre of Scio” he had occasion to notice some works of Constable, and there discovered and made his own a principle of art which so many masters have failed to appreciate, viz. that in nature, what seems to be of one color is in reality made up of many shades, discovered only by the eye which knows how to see. There-after coloring had no secret for him. Delacroix was an artist in a supreme degree. Possessed of a deep knowledge of history, he studied each group and each individual in series of sketches, which were retouched again and again; then only did they take place in the ensemble. With the instinct of a poet he saw vividly the scene he was painting. His artistic sense kept him from falling into the melodramatic, but he remains tragic, and it is for this tragic note, which finds expression in so many bloody themes, that he is generally criticized. Delacroix worked with an unerring instinct of composition, avoiding the monotony of regular line by the varied attitudes of his figures. He excelled in the various branches of his art, and his decorative pictures in the Gallery of Apollo at the Louvre, the drawing-room of the king, the chamber of deputies, and St-Sulpice are as excellent as his canvases. There is hardly a tragedy of the human soul which is not reproduced in his work. He is not popular because the multitude wants pleasure, and Delacroix, like Pascal, does not make one laugh; he terrifies. In the “Murder of the Bishop of Liege”, before admiration comes one has shivered at the vivid portrayal of human ferocity; in the “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemani” there is no human sorrow equal to that. Delacroix is the highest manifestation of French genius in art; he not only honors France, but mankind, and is one of those who Emerson said were “representative of humanity”.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!