The review in The New Yorker of the Delacroix show currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was curiously and unnecessarily dismissive of the artist, treating him as both banal and overbearing. I think that was because Delacroix is so clearly a Romantic, which is an age so out of favor at the moment, what with its Orientalism, supercharged emotions and flamboyant militarism. It is true that Delacroix is not up there with the true greats, like Picasso, who makes us reimagine the topology of the human shape, or Rembrandt, whose lined and craggy faces testify to their humanity, or Vermeer, who sets people and their identities within the world of extension when he, for example, shows the spaces between the dustmotes in the air. But Delacroix does have his virtues as an artist, if not as a philosopher or as a humanist, and these I wish to catalogue.
Delacroix does nudes quite well. They are not rounded and pink as they are in Rubens. Rather, they are fleshy because their bodies are lumpy and mis-proportioned and they are presented in poses that border on the lewd, sometimes their skin almost purple, which is a tribute to his use of color in a fresh way, with wide brushstrokes to present a dramatic composition of contrasting colors, a color rather than an object at the center of the composition. In “Mademoiselle Rose”, an at least R-rated picture, the model has muscles on her legs and bits of flab on her sides and has a bluish hue. Delacroix reminds the viewer of why female nudes are so perpetually interesting: they capture a note of intimacy because they capture what a woman really looks like under her clothes, what her individual body and so her self looks like, her body as much a part of her as her face, however much the inclination to see that may be suppressed during our present prudish dispensation.
The portrait of a clothed woman, “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi”, is also arresting. Her face is distracted, perhaps by the slaughter around her. She is a particular person rather than an icon of a nation and so her facial expression counts. She is feminine because, despite being fully clothed, her breasts are partly exposed. Her arms are extended to show hopelessness and there is a kerchief on her forehead that gives away her peasant stock as does her costume of blue robe, white dress, red shoes. Her emotion, which is too appear brave while helpless amidst the carnage, again reveals Romantic heroism to be an internal state rather than an activity.
Delacroix’s most Orientalist and potentially most sexy painting of women, “Women of Algiers in their Apartment”, is not lewd at all, the three women of the harem fully clothed, their bare feet a sign of their humanity, and the face of the woman just to the left of the slave girl hardly alluring at all, just strange, what with her prominent nose and narrow eyes and large cheeks, but all the same very interesting. Delacroix had a gift for faces, his own and those of others impressive for their gauntness and mannered seriousness, as if that required an effort. His own face is opaque in that the viewer does not know what is going on behind his eyes, and yet his presentation is dashing, what with his strong chin, full crop of hair, strong moustache, and molded cheeks. He is heroic though one does not know why.
Delacroix also does mass scenes quite well. The logic of the battle in “The Battle of Nancy and the Death of Charles the Bold” is quite clear, the attackers coming in for the kill, the defeated horsemen on the ground about to be killed. There is a sense of the hopelessness and panic among the defenders and the rage of the attackers. Delacroix also is fresh in the way he assembles masses of people. The survivors in “The Shipwreck of ‘Don Juan’” are crowded in their boat and some are seen staring out of the painting, while others are posed in side views, and there is even one man who is seen from the back but whose individuality is conveyed by his pose and being shirtless even though the viewer cannot see his face. It would have taken a very good eye for space to pose his figures in these ways so as to make them into a group portrait.
Delacroix’s religious pictures also have a distinctive character. His Christ in “Christ in the Garden of Olives” does not show Christ as being tortured except by his own sense of the nature of his mission. His face is handsome, even if suffering, his features and shoulder well formed to indicate a handsome young man whose long hair is neatly arranged, his arm extended to hold off the angels who weep for him in advance of his torture, even as he does not look at them. Christ is a handsome, healthy, Romantic hero whose suffering, at this point, is internal and spiritual, his white and red robes in a clear light, while the angels behind him are in muted grays and blues. The color recipe follows the meaning, which is to keep the haloed Christ at the center of the picture, a mystery to be contemplated rather than understood as a figure of suffering or redemption or one of the other standard emotions that are associated with him.
These images capture the idea of the Romantic hero, driven or possessed by emotions not quite understood that have something primitive about them. The Romantic hero is heroic because of something inside him that is more than a bit frightening, however noble his outer raiments. It is to be remembered that the Count of Monte Cristo was out for something so backward as revenge and that “Les Miserables” is about retribution for a crime, which is also seen as a dated emotion. What satisfaction is there in that but an appeal to a baser instinct that still abides within us? Heathcliff, in “Wuthering Heights”, is also a feral creature, made appealing, in perverse fashion, by that fact. This is a time still before the Industrial Revolution has worked its way forward in consciousness so that history and literature are, ever afterwards, impacted by divisions within the human species, by social class and race and gender, the last, at the moment, the most engaging, while for Delacroix women are what they had been for millenia: all but a separate species to be understood for themselves alone rather than as either exploited or free. No wonder Delacroix does not capture the imagination of our own era. So in order to give him his due, it is necessary to consult what he does accomplish, which is to set us inside his scenes and stories, as if we were miniature observers on the scene, small inhabitants of the apron of the painting, and so caught up in the action, as if it were a Cinemascope movie, here noticing a fallen soldier, there a distinctive woman, some paintings noisy with charging horses and clashing blades, while others are quiet, like Greece in the still that occurs after the battle at Missolonghi, and then again, the injected viewer attending at a myth, such as that of a full breasted Medea rather than an old beat up woman, about to kill her very healthy children. What a waste to see that happening; how sad, though hardly tragic because we can get no sense of why this event was necessary other than to satisfy some primitive instinct of hers that is contrary to what is visible about her and them. Yes, it is a leap to enter the Romantic, but that is what it means to try to understand a period that is other than our own.