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Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Women of Algiers
in their Apartment
Marocco
In early 1832 Delacroix visited North Africa in the suite of a French embassy to the sultan of Morocco. Islamic Africa surpassed all his expectations. The classical beauty for which he had vainly looked among the plaster casts in Guérin's studio he now encountered along roadsides under the African sky. He filled sketchbooks with observations of Arab life and gathered a store of ideas that served him for the rest of his life. On his return to Paris, he began a series of oriental subjects, not Byronic fantasies now but recollections of actual experience. Algerian Women in Their Apartment (1834, Louvre) records his recollection of a visit to a harem with the quiet authority of fact rather than the fictions of romantic exoticism. The sensuous intensity of the painting results from stylistic means that seem simpler but are in fact more complex than those that produced the sensational Sardanapalus. It signals the attainment of his mature style, quieter but grander than his earlier manner, more monumental yet no less expressive, more restrained but more powerful.

Early in his career, Delacroix had been hailed by the young French romantics as their leader. During the 1830s he outgrew this affiliation, not because he had changed his course, but because his fellow romantics were failing to keep up with him. The "romantic battle" had been won too easily. After 1830 French romanticism became popular and died. Its followers, agreeable but minor talents for the most part, rapidly declined into picturesqueness and mannerism. Delacroix, by contrast, increasingly identified himself with the grand traditions of the Venetians and Flemings, withVeronese and Rubens above all. His later works expressed a growing concern with traditional subject matter and monumental form. In his Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople (Louvre), shown at the Salon of 1840, he resumed compositional devices that he had used earlier in Massacres of Chios, but the former violence is stilled by the somber harmony of the colors and the weight of the great colonnade that dominates the scene. In his Justice of Trajan (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen) shown at the same Salon, an even more elaborate architectural setting contains, with its strong verticals and diagonals, the animation of the figures.

 


Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable
Arab Horses Fighting in
a Stable
Wall paintings
Behind Delacroix' new concern with compositional structure and balance lay the experience he had gained in carrying out the architectural decorations that occupied him during the latter part of his life. The governments of Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III favored him with important monumental commissions, beginning in 1833 with the allegorical decorations of the Salon du Roi in the Palais Bourbon (Chamber of Deputies). This was closely followed by the even larger enterprise of the Palais Bourbon's library (1838-1847), where Delacroix covered a succession of domes and pendentives with scenes celebrating the heroic lineage of the arts and sciences, in a dramatic succession beginning with Orpheus' gift of civilization to mankind and ending with Attila's destruction of Italy. Before this was finished, he received the further commission of decorating the library of the Senate in the Luxembourg Palace (1840-1846), where, in the central dome, he painted the presentation of Dante to Homer and the other great men of Greek and Roman antiquity, to symbolize the meeting of the classical pagan with the modern Christian culture. There followed the ceiling of the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre (1850-1851), the decorations in the Salon de la Paix of the Hôtel de Ville of Paris (1852-1854, destroyed in 1871), and the Chapel of the Holy Angels in the church of Saint-Sulpice (1854-1861). No other painter of the time was so continuously employed in monumental work on the grandest scale, none was given such opportunities to triumph in public on ceilings, domes, and walls. His murals, exceptional achievements in a time when monumental painting languished, prove that this nervously frail artist had the energy to compose on immense surfaces and the mental vigor to invent images that dominate those walls. His superiority rested in part on his mastery of color that provided both the emotional force and the formal structure of his murals, in part on his command of expressive pantomime, of the movement, tension, and clash of bodies. He was the most versatile of the painters of his time, including in the range of his subjects battlefield and barricade, Faust and Hamlet, royal tiger and odalisque.

The Universal Exposition in 1855 showed thirty-six of his paintings, a tribute to him (together with Ingres) as one of France's two preeminent living artists. Having long been denied admission to the Academy, of which he privately took a coolly realistic view, he was at last admitted to this body of distinguished mediocrities in 1857. Frequently ill with bronchial infections and economizing his physical strength, he lived a frugal bachelor's life but worked with unabated energy until the end. For all his courtesy, his person could command awe and, on occasion, a secret terror. In one of his last works, the National Gallery's Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains, he remembered once more his African voyage, the great adventure of his early years. He died, not long after completing this painting, on 13 August 1863.

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The Sultan of Marocco and his Entourage
The Sultan of Marocco
and his Entourage
Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin
A Vase of Flowers on a Console
A Vase of Flowers
on a Console
     

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Eugène Delacroix