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Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait
"The last of the great artists of the Renaissace and the first modern". Charles Baudelaire.

Eugène Delacroix
was born in 1798 as the son of Charles Delacroix (1741 - 1805) who had been briefly a minister of foreign affairs who was on a mission to Holland, as the ambassador of the French Republic, at the time of his son's birth. His mother, Victoire Oeben (1759 - 1814), was descended from a family of artisans and craftsmen. Both parents died early, leaving young Eugène in the care of his older sister, Henriette de Verninac (1780 - 1827), wife of a former ambassador to Turkey and minister-plenipotentiary to Switzerland, Raymond de Verninac (1762 - 1822). The fall of Napoleon's empire spelled the temporary ruin of this family of high officials, and with it that of young Delacroix. But the influential relations among which his birth and childhood had placed him were to protect his subsequent career, particularly in those periods, after 1830 and again after 1850, when Bonapartist interests were on the rise. As a child he had played on the knees of Talleyrand, his father's successor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a family friend. It has been suggested, but not proven, that Talleyrand, to whom Delacroix in later life bore a marked facial resemblance, was in fact his actual father.

In 1815 Delacroix, aged seventeen, began to take painting lessons from Pierre Guérin (1774-1833) through whose studio Théodore Gericault had briefly and turbulently passed a little earlier. Guérin was a tolerant teacher who attracted the sons of the middle class. His classicist instruction had little effect on Delacroix; it was less important for his development than the literary education that he had received at the lycée. The example of Gericault with whom he was acquainted and for whose Raft of the Medusa he posed in 1818 left its mark on him, but in every essential respect he was, like many of his contemporaries, a self-taught artist, whose real school was the Louvre, where, even after the removal of the Napoleonic loot, the splendor of Titian, Veronese, and Rubens shone brightly enough to eclipse the school of David. Among his fellow copyists in its galleries he met the young Englishman Richard Parkes Bonington (1801-1828) who, together with his friend Raymond Soulier, was to introduce him to watercolor painting and a British tradition of colorism, and who helped to awaken his interest in Shakespeare, Byron, and Scott, the main literary sources of his romanticism.
 


The Barque of Dante
The Barque of Dante

Debut
Delacroix' student work did not show extraordinary promise, but in 1822 his Salon debut, the
Bark of Dante, attracted some attention. Though it has a deserved place in the history of art, as the start of a great career, it is still an immature effort, heavy-handed in its combination of reminiscences of Gericault, Rubens, and Michelangelo, and incoherent in its composition. Two years later, his The Massacre of Chios (Louvre) burst upon the Salon of 1824 as "a terrifying hymn in honor of doom and irremediable suffering" (Charles Baudelaire, "L'Oeuvre et la vie d'Eugène Delacroix," published as L'Art romantique, Paris, 1869). The picture's resonant harmonies gave an early indication of Delacroix' mastery of color, and its lustful stress on horror and death struck a note that was to sound throughout much of his subsequent work. The government's purchase of the work (3000 franks) enabled Delacroix to visit England in the spring and summer of 1825. He had already seen landscapes by John Constable (1776-1837) in Paris while at work on The Massacre of Chios. Further impressions of English art and literature gathered during his months in London were to influence him in the following years, as is evident in his Portrait of Baron Switer (1826, National Gallery, London), a bravura performance in the manner of Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), and in his use of subjects from Scott and Byron. His Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero (1826, Wallace Collection, London), based on a play by Byron and painted with something of Bonington's nervous brilliance, is the crowning achievement of his English phase.

After these paintings of exquisite finish and relatively small format, the colossal, orgiastic The Death of Sardanapalus (Louvre), shown at the Salon of 1827, came as a shock to the public. Delacroix had taken the subject from a play by Byron but supplied the voluptuous cast of this scene of slaughter from his own imagination. He paid for his audacity with a temporary loss of official favor. The following years were a difficult but productive period during which he experimented with a variety of subjects: studies of lions and tigers, oriental scenes, sensuous nudes, and turbulent battles.

The Revolution of 1830 inspired his one truly popular work, Liberty Leading the People (Louvre). In the place of the febrile romanticism of his paintings of the 1820s, he now used a larger, more sober manner and colors of muted intensity. Dealing with this modern subject he achieved poetic effect without morbidity or false grandeur: even Liberty, abundantly physical, has the effect of adding a note of actuality rather than allegorical artifice to the tumult on the barricade. For once, public and critics united in praise of the artist, and the government of Louis-Philippe awarded him the Legion of Honor - the highest french distinction.

Life 1832-1863 -->

The Massacre of Chios
The Massacre of Chios
The Death of Sardanapalus
The Death of Sardanapalus
Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People



 

This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue

 

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Eugène Delacroix