Delacroix and the rise of Modern Art, at the National Gallery

Self-portrait, Delacroix, c.1850
Self-portrait, Delacroix, c.1850

This new exhibition at the National Gallery is probably the most powerful assembly of world class paintings that we shall see in London this year. Travelling from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the exhibition brings together a number of works by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and an even greater number of works by other major painters of the late C19, to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his influence. It is an exhibition worth repeated visits.

The exhibition material says that there has not been a major exhibition of Delacroix in this country for 50 years. And even today, a full scale exhibition of Delacroix alone is simply not practical. His monumental history paintings are simply too large and too precious to travel, and to see them you will have to visit the Louvre. Many of his other key works are frescoes, adorning major public buildings in Paris and again they have to be seen in situ. But the relatively modest number of Delacroix paintings in the exhibition does not cause disappointment because of the quality of work, and the quality  of those he influenced – Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas and others.

Combat of the Giaour and Hasson, Delacroix, 1835

The fascinating accompanying catalogue sets out the case for positioning Delacroix as the starting point for ‘modern art’. The essence of the argument is that it was Delacroix who broke free from formal representation to paint from the imagination. As Van Gogh wrote “in his paintings the mood of colour and tone was at one with the meaning … that one should take one’s studies from nature – but the actual painting has to be made from the heart”. Certainly you can see from the most cursory glance at Delacroix’s work that every picture exudes passion and emotional tension. It leaps out in the choice of subject, of bold colours and highly expressive brushwork. Delacroix is not simply giving us a picture but a glimpse into his own soul.

Bathers, Delacroix, 1854

There is no doubt that Delacroix was the great French Romantic painter of the C19. No doubt either, that his paintings represented a major shift in style and emotional resonance from the painters of revolutionary France, such as Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) who reacted to the rococo ‘excess’ of pre-revolutionary France by instituting a formal austerity in both subject and style. But whilst it suits some purposes to position Delacroix as the first modern, there is much in his work which pays homage to those who came before him. Wandering through the National Gallery after the exhibition, I was struck by Tintoretto painting which exuded just same emotional intensity as Delacroix.

But what of those who followed Delacroix? The exhibition makes a compelling case for the influence of Delacroix on the choice of subject, colouration, emotional intensity and “painting from the heart” in those that followed. Even better it provides a visual feast of marvellous paintings, some of which are direct copies of Delacroix works and many others of which are hugely influenced by his style.

A number of works from the exhibition which demonstrate continuities of style and approach are shown below. These pictures alone are worth the price of admission. But together and in the context of Delacroix, this is a must see exhibition.

Bathers, Paul Cezanne, 1874
Olive Trees with Yellow Sun and Sky by Vincent Van Gogh
Olive Trees, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
The Jewish Wedding in Morocco (after Delacroix), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c1875