The Place of Delacroix in the History of Modern Art

The major retrospective of Delacroix which opened in the Paris Louvre on the 29th March of this year and will move on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York September 13th, gives the international contemporary art world an opportunity to consider its relationship to the celebrated history of modern art of the last two hundred years. I am particularly struck by the coincidence of this event, since I published an essay, The Modern Aesthetic, dealing with this very issue, in book form in March 2017, exactly one year earlier. It is now available on-line, as of June 2018, This study considers the history of modern art from what I take to be its inception with Géricault. There is only a brief mention of Delacroix in passing, where it is stated that “Baudelaire's belief in Delacroix has not worn well”. 

Baudelaire is the great modern poet and critic who is credited with coining the term “modernity” in the 1840’s and of championing Delacroix, over Courbet and Manet, as its primary practitioner. Art historians since have given Delacroix and Romanticism the role of chief precursor to their account of modern art, which generally begins with Manet. A long list of modern masters, including Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse are cited as tracing their interest in color and light, central to the modern movement, back to Delacroix. What, therefore, is going on here? Why would I treat Delacroix in such peremptory fashion in the face of so much authority? The answer may take us to the heart of a debate about modern and contemporary art which is long overdue. 

My book, The Modern Aesthetic, makes the following case: if we have a modern art tradition of long-standing, distinct for example from the Renaissance, then this accumulation of great art must surely have developed and established its own aesthetic identity? Art historians do not raise the question of whether a modern aesthetic exists, or needs to exist. They focus on giving a scientific description of art, which assumes too hastily, that modern art is in solidarity with scientific inquiry. Further, in recognition of the difficulty that many people have in understanding modern art, historians assume that their task is to find a way to explain it to as large a number of people as possible. This leads them to explore modern art as a matter of style, since this is what people can see. Yet the most cursory consideration of modern art will reveal that none of its great practitioners has ever accepted this identity. Let us cite Géricault, Courbet and Manet. For all three, their relationship with the nineteenth century’s emergent ideology of scientific positivism was conflictual in the extreme. The conflict only becomes more explicit if we fast-forward to the mid-twentieth century, with Newman, Pollock and Rothko. As to the issue of style, all of these artists developed their own. Can we, for example, compare Manet with Pollock on stylistic grounds? The ‘modernist’ school of criticism would suggest that they share a common goal of ‘flatness’. But, let’s face it, that’s inane! What, therefore, connects them? 

If we want to consider Delacroix as the central precursor to modern art, we need to ask what is the role of the two other major artists of the period, namely Géricault and Courbet? The two salient elements at the formation of modern art, rejection of the Academy with its advocacy of neo-classical style and study of Italian Renaissance art in the Louvre, were embraced by Géricault and Courbet. Géricault was Delacroix’s senior by seven years. Both artists received their training in the studio of Guerin. The younger greatly admired the elder and is said to have modeled for one of the figures in his grand format painting, The Raft of the Medusa. Delacroix’s ant-Academicism and his study of the Italians came to him from Géricault. Then Géricault died in 1824, just two years after Delacroix painted The Barque of Dante, which launched his career. When Baudelaire formulated his thoughts on the birth of modern art in the ‘40’s, and chose Delacroix as it’s leading exponent, Géricault had disappeared from the scene. Nevertheless, the modern painterly values of open, energetic brush work in matter, derived ultimately from Venetian painting, and the development of personal subjects, hallmarks of modern art, animate the work of Géricault to a far greater degree than they ever will Delacroix. 

And what of Courbet? Courbet inherited, and prodigiously developed, both these elements of brushwork and personal subject matter. It is with Courbet that one sees the deep ambiguity and complexity of Baudelaire’s outlook. Baudelaire had been close to Courbet early on, living in his studio and sitting for his portrait. He is, further, seen in the right-hand corner of the artist’s grand Studio of the Painter. Yet Baudelaire came to repudiate Courbet’s ‘realism’ because he felt it lacked the element, key for him, of imagination. Delacroix, for his part, detested Courbet. When it came time in 1864 for Fantin-Latour to compose his posthumous Homage to Delacroix, Courbet is notably absent from the group of the deceased master’s admirers gathered together around his portrait.

Baudelaire had, at one moment, genially called on the artist to embrace modern life. However, following his prosecution for obscenity, occasioned by the publication of his collected poems, Les Fleurs du Mal, he soured on the social outlook and values of his time. Baudelaire came to personify a profoundly dissident view of modern society. It is normally assumed that this embrace of subjects taken from modern life, with ambivalence entailed, entered modern art with Manet. However, its first appearance pre-dates Baudelaire, in Géricault’s Charging Chasseur of 1812, a depiction of battle during Napoleon’s Russian invasion and, therefore, a subject drawn from modern life, in which the artist expresses a deep reticence about the dawning modern age. Modern life is also the subject of Courbet’s painting, if you will include contemporary rural or small town life, lived contemporaneously with the emerging big city of Baudelaire and Manet. Indeed, it could be argued that one of Courbet’s principal subjects is the transition of the artist and of working people from the countryside to Paris, with the artist and his model in The Studio depicted before a landscape and surrounded by the elements of metropolitan society, from the Emperor Napoleon III to his patron Bruyas and the art critics Champfleury and Baudelaire. Courbet’s experiment with modern life also culminated in deep disillusion when he was prosecuted in the Vendome Column affair and forced into bankruptcy and exile by the government of the day. It can be said in general that modern artists across the nineteenth century had initially sought approval from society by submitting their paintings to the Salon for exhibition and sale, only to encounter rejection for the most part. This suggests that there is, as detected by Baudelaire, a profound incompatibility between aesthetic and social values in modern society. 

By contrast, Delacroix had a different relationship to the society of his day. He had adopted from Géricault the modern style of painting and encountered a fair degree of denigration from critics and the public as a result, as did modern artists generally. Yet he received social endorsement and patronage throughout his life. This may have been helped by the support of the great foreign minister, Talleyrand, strongly rumored to be his natural father, and by Thiers, future president of the republic, who secured him many official commissions in later years. His earlier major paintings, The Barque of Dante, 1822, The Massacre of Chios, 1824, and Liberty Leading the People, 1830, were all quickly acquired by the state. Delacroix leaned towards selecting his subjects in the old manner, often choosing scenes of historical or literary inspiration. Take for example The Barque of Dante which brought the artist immediate recognition. Look, for example, at the entirely conventional treatment of the theme of damnation in this picture and compare it with Géricault’s Portraits of the Insane, where a modern understanding emerges. Géricault’s portraits could be taken directly out of Baudelaire’s vision of modern life, as it is found in his Mon cœur mis à nu. One such, A Kidnapper, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass., could have been plucked from the columns of a contemporary American newspaper illustrating a common story of child abduction. Beside them, Delacroix’s imagination is deeply conventional. It is said that Delacroix was profoundly marked by Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and that the Barque of Dante was his response. If so, it is an exercise in bathos. 

Delacroix tended to avoid scenes from contemporary life with a few exceptions, such as those of the Greek War of Independence, yet even they are rhetorically composed and laden with sentimentality. The strongest contrast in the outlooks of the two artists is offered by a comparison between Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. The former depicts a minor contemporary scandal in the French press, which offers the modern artist an opportunity to look skeptically through the popular ideology of his time. His stance is one of dissidence. In the latter, Delacroix, who incidentally was not himself of a revolutionary disposition, nevertheless creates a romantic identification with the popular ideological outlook. It is Victor Hugo to Géricault’s Flaubert! Even the painting by Delacroix which comes across as by far the most modern of his production, Women of Algiers in their Apartment1834, motivates the painter less by the simple scene of domestic life in an interior washed by natural light, as it would a modern artist, and more by its ‘orientalist’ exoticism. It is telling that the term ‘Orientalism’ today has taken on a pejorative connotation. Neither should the irony that Delacroix discovered North Africa as a member of a colonialist expedition shortly after the conquest of Algeria entirely escape us.

How then do we evaluate Delacroix’s position in the history of modern art? Baudelaire enthusiastically endorsed him. A long list of great modern artists admired him and considered him a major influence on their work. And who would quarrel with the judgement of a Cézanne or a Matisse? Not I. Delacroix places an emphasis on color and light, with acknowledgment of English painting, most notably that of his friend Bonington, who excelled in the medium of watercolor. When Matisse needed theoretical support for his color experiments, he found Signac’s Divisionism, with Delacroix as its ultimate source. In 1912 Matisse would visit Morocco with Delacroix very much in mind. Nevertheless, from our present vantage point of two hundred years Delacroix’s aesthetic position has become an anachronism. Géricault and Courbet, in contrast, emerge as great modern artists. 

Delacroix declared that “Glory is not a vain word”. Cézanne, his admirer, declared “Sensations form the foundation of my work”. Between these two notions of glory and sensation a transformation of understanding has occurred. Yet it is important to emphasize that the transformation had already begun with Géricault’s painting of 1812, the Charging Chasseur, where this notion of glory is banished. Later Delacroix’s appeal to the imagination and memory would become, with Pollock, a search for the origins of thought in unconscious experience. Emphatically, a fundamental change of value has taken place across the trajectory of modern art. It is the path that modern art has taken and it leads back to Géricault, with Delacroix in a minor role.


Paul Rodgers