Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school.
As a painter and muralist, Delacroix's use of expressive brushstrokes and his study of the optical effects of colour profoundly shaped the work of the Impressionists, while his passion for the exotic inspired the artists of the Symbolist movement. A fine lithographer, Delacroix illustrated various works of William Shakespeare, the Scottish author Walter Scott and the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In contrast to the Neoclassical perfectionism of his chief rival Ingres, Delacroix took for his inspiration the art of Rubens and painters of the Venetian Renaissance, with an attendant emphasis on colour and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modelled form. Dramatic and romantic content characterized the central themes of his maturity, and led him not to the classical models of Greek and Roman art, but to travel in North Africa, in search of the exotic. Friend and spiritual heir to Theodore Gericault, Delacroix was also inspired by Lord Byron, with whom he shared a strong identification with the "forces of the sublime", of nature in often violent action.
However, Delacroix was given to neither sentimentality nor bombast, and his Romanticism was that of an individualist. In the words of Baudelaire, "Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible."
Delacroix's painting of the massacre at Chios shows sick, dying Greek civilians about to be slaughtered by the Turks. One of several paintings he made of this contemporary event, it expresses sympathy for the Greek cause in their war of independence against the Turks, a popular sentiment at the time for the French people. Delacroix was quickly recognized as a leading painter in the new Romantic style, and the picture was bought by the state. His depiction of suffering was controversial however, as there was no glorious event taking place, no patriots raising their swords in valour as in David's Oath of the Horatii, only a disaster. Many critics deplored the painting's despairing tone; the artist Antoine-Jean Gros called it "a massacre of art". The pathos in the depiction of an infant clutching its dead mother's breast had an especially powerful effect, although this detail was condemned as unfit for art by Delacroix's critics. A viewing of the paintings of John Constable and the watercolour sketches and art of Richard Parkes Bonnington prompted Delacroix to make extensive, freely painted changes to the sky and distant landscape.
Delacroix produced a second painting in support of the Greeks in their war for independence, this time referring to the capture of Missolonghi by Turkish forces in 1825. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Turks. A hand is seen at the bottom, the body having been crushed by rubble. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of freedom against tyrannical rule. This event interested Delacroix not only for his sympathies with the Greeks, but also because the poet Byron, whom Delacroix greatly admired, had died there.
A trip to England in 1825 included visits to Thomas Lawrence and Richard Parkes Bonington, and the colour and handling of English painting provided impetus for his only full-length portrait, the elegant Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter (1826–30). At roughly the same time, Delacroix was creating romantic works of numerous themes, many of which would continue to interest him for over thirty years. By 1825, he was producing lithographs illustrating Shakespeare, and soon thereafter lithographs and paintings from Goethe's Faust. Paintings such as The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan (1826), and Woman with Parrot (1827), introduced subjects of violence and sensuality which would prove to be recurrent.
These various romantic strands came together in the Death of Sardanapalus (1827-8). Delacroix's painting of the death of the Assyrian king Sardanapalus shows an emotionally stirring scene alive with beautiful colours, exotic costumes and tragic events. The Death of Sardanapalus depicts the besieged king watching impassively as guards carry out his orders to kill his servants, concubines and animals. The literary source is a play by Byron, although the play does not specifically mention any massacre of concubines.
Sardanapalus' attitude of calm detachment is a familiar pose in Romantic imagery in this period in Europe. The painting, which was not exhibited again for many years afterward, has been regarded by some critics as a gruesome fantasy involving death and lust. Especially shocking is the struggle of a nude woman whose throat is about to be cut, a scene placed prominently in the foreground for maximum impact. However, the sensuous beauty and exotic colours of the composition make the picture appear pleasing and shocking at the same time.
A variety of Romantic interests were again synthesized in The Murder of the Bishop of Liege (1829). It also borrowed from a literary source, this time Scott, and depicts a scene from the Middle Ages, that of the murder of Louis de Bourbon, Bishop of Liege amidst an orgy sponsored by his captor, William de la Marck. Set in an immense vaulted interior which Delacroix based on sketches of the Palais de Justice in Rouen and Westminster Hall, the drama plays out in chiaroscuro, organized around a brilliantly lit stretch of tablecloth. In 1855, a critic described the painting's vibrant handling as "Less finished than a painting, more finished than a sketch, The Murder of the Bishop of Liege was left by the painter at that supreme moment when one more stroke of the brush would have ruined everything".
In 1838 Delacroix exhibited Medea about to Kill Her Children, which created a sensation at the Salon. His first large-scale treatment of a scene from Greek mythology, the painting depicts Medea clutching her children, dagger drawn to slay them in vengeance for her abandonment by Jason. The three nude figures form an animated pyramid, bathed in a raking light which penetrates the grotto in which Medea has hidden. Though the painting was quickly purchased by the State, Delacroix was disappointed when it was sent to the Lille Musee des Beaux-Arts; he had intended for it to hang at the Luxembourg, where it would have joined The Barque of Dante and Scenes from the Massacres of Chios.
From 1833 Delacroix received numerous commissions to decorate public buildings in Paris. In that year he began work for the Salon du Roi in the Chambre des Deputes, Palais Bourbon, which was not completed until 1837. For the next ten years he painted in both the Library at the Palais Bourbon and the Library at the Palais du Luxembourg. In 1843 he decorated the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement with a large Pieta, and from 1848 to 1850 he painted the ceiling in the Galerie d'Apollon of the Louvre. From 1857 to 1861 he worked on frescoes for the Chapelle des Anges at the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. They included "The Battle of Jacob with the Angel", "Saint Michael Slaying the Dragon", and "The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple". These commissions offered him the opportunity to compose on a large scale in an architectural setting, much as had those masters he admired, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens.
The work was fatiguing, and during these years he suffered from an increasingly fragile constitution. In addition to his home in Paris, from 1844 he also lived at a small cottage in Champrosay, where he found respite in the countryside. From 1834 until his death, he was faithfully cared for by his housekeeper, Jeanne-Marie le Guillou, who zealously guarded his privacy, and whose devotion prolonged his life and his ability to continue working in his later years.
In 1862 Delacroix participated in the creation of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. His friend, the writer Theophile Gautier, became chairman, with the painter Aime Millet acting as deputy chairman. In addition to Delacroix, the committee was composed of the painters Carrier-Belleuse and Puvis de Chavannes. Among the exhibitors were Leon Bonnat, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Gustave Dore, and Edouard Manet. Just after his death in 1863, the society organized a retrospective exhibition of 248 paintings and lithographs by Delacroix—and ceased to mount any further exhibitions.
Eugene Delacroix died in Paris and was buried there in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.