This month is the bicentenary of the birth of Eugène Delacroix. Best remembered for his Liberty picture, what was the French painter's distinctive achievement? Historical and Marxist analyses of art remain popular but miss the point. We should see Delacroix as a purveyor of visual pleasureby John Armstrong / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is probably the most widely recognised, the most immediately evocative, of all pictures of revolution: a statuesque woman-dress slipping from her shoulders, tricolour raised, bayonet at the ready-leaps upon the barricade, the fighting men in her wake. “Liberty Leading the People,” 28th July 1830 (the notorious July Days) belongs to that group of images which has currency beyond the limited circles of connoisseurs and art historians. The painter, Eugène Delacroix, most renowned of the French Romantic school (although it was a title he scorned), was born near Paris 200 years ago, on 26th April 1798. In contrast to the modern image of the romantic artist whose genius is ignored, Delacroix was what we might call an assimilated painter. From an early age he had a remarkably successful career. The first work that he exhibited at the Salon, at the age of 24, was bought by the state for 1,200 francs. (To give a sense of purchasing power, a very grand meal at a very grand restaurant would have cost about 50 francs per head-according to Balzac, an exact contemporary of Delacroix.) He was friends with many of the cultural figures of the day: Baudelaire and Th?hile Gautier were his champions in the press; he was close to Chopin and Madame Sand; he went to lots of dinner parties. He was descended on his mother’s side from a line of famous cabinet makers; the paternal name, Delacroix, brought high diplomatic and military ties. It is rumoured, however, that Charles Delacroix (one of the signatories of Louis XVI’s death warrant and minister for foreign affairs under the Directory) was not in fact the father of the painter. It seems that Eug?e was the illegitimate son of the mercurial statesman Talleyrand, Delacroix senior’s boss at the time. There is no evidence of contact between father and son, but the hand of Talleyrand can perhaps be discerned in Delacroix’s easy reception into high society and the continuous state patronage he received, even when his work was regarded as controversial. Delacroix was said to resemble Talleyrand; his appearance and demeanour suggest a mingling of aristocratic and creative inheritances. A self-portrait (see page 51) painted, like “Liberty,” in 1830, shows an emphatic face: he was good-looking, determined, even haughty. In the portrait he draws himself upright, thrusting his chest forward, as if willing himself to be strong in spite of doubts and hesitancies. Thick, dark locks fall over his brow; you can imagine him sweeping his hair back in a thoroughly modern gesture. Judging from “Liberty” we might get the impression that Delacroix was an ardent republican, a supporter of the poor, a hater of privilege, anxious to climb on a barricade himself. The idea of him as a romantic feeds this image because we still link the “romance” of art-its bohemianism-to left politics. Yet Delacroix was none of these things. In fact, Romanticism was often attached to right-wing themes; the politics of “throne and altar” appealed to many romantics. Delacroix’s political outlook was more complex than the Liberty picture suggests; we get a sense of this in his journal. (Delacroix’s journal, which has become an important art historical document of the 19th century, is perhaps the only case in which a painter of his distinction possessed the literary ambition and ability to present the evolution of his thinking across the course of his career.) The journal testifies to Delacroix’s scepticism about political activity. A regular guest at the home of Thiers, the intellectual force behind the July Days, Delacroix was bored by the dinner-table conversation and lacked sympathy for the general talk of rights and liberty. “But in the whole of creation is there any being more of a slave than man?” he wrote. “His weakness and his needs make him dependent on the elements and his fellow men. But external matters are the least of his troubles. The passions he finds within his own breast are the cruellest tyrants he has to fight… and to resist them is to go against his very nature.” It is a dark philosophy: what we most need to do (escape the tyranny of our passions) is precisely what we are least able to do (go directly against our nature). From this perspective the talk about what was going on in the chamber was not of great interest. “Republic, monarchy, what does it matter?” This tells us something of who Delacroix was, but, to follow the point Baudelaire made in his obituary of the painter (who died in 1863), the crucial question is not: who was Delacroix? It is rather: what was his distinctive artistic achievement? What do we want to remember him for? Delacroix was a hero in his day and his art aroused violent passions. To celebrate the anniversary of an artist is also to raise questions about the interest he continues to have for us. Yet how we understand a painter depends very much upon the art historical model we employ. There are, broadly speaking, three approaches to a work of art. There is the traditional stylistic-historical approach which tries to reconstruct the way in which the artist and his contemporaries understood the work. This seeks to identify the artist’s style and locate it within the cultural context of the day. Thus we can position Delacroix within the stylistic battle between Classicism and Romanticism of the first half of the 19th century. Another approach seeks to read the artist’s work “against the grain.” This aims to penetrate the hidden assumptions and biases which underlie the work-hidden even from its own creator: it seeks precisely not to see the picture as the painter saw it. A third approach, that of the aesthete, aims to identify the visual pleasure which a work of art offers the spectator and to cultivate enjoyment of individual pictures. What does Delacroix look like from these different points of view? traditional interpretation requires that we reconstruct the historical situation within which the work was created. “Liberty Leading the People” has become an ahistorical image, transcending the local details (a man in a top hat, old-fashioned rifles) linking it, as its subtitle declares, to Paris, on the 28th July 1830. The rioting lasted only 48 hours but left 2,000 people dead. It began when Charles X dissolved his puppet parliament because it obstructed his plans to increase the temporal power of the church. Out of the turmoil emerged the “July monarchy” of Louis-Philippe. Did the revolution of 1830 advance the cause of liberty? There was a little more freedom for the press; and a certain weakening of the church party. A modest record. Delacroix’s picture should be understood independently of any political programme. It is connected with no bill of rights or concrete conception of liberty. There are no delegates or constitutional lawyers in the wings, ready to transform the leap on to the barricade into actual political change. In Delacroix’s melancholy we see one characteristic of Romanticism: its sadness about the state of the world, the vague feeling that everything is worse than it could be but that nothing can be done to improve things. (“Republic, monarchy, what does it matter?”) A common feature of Romantic sensibility is its attachment to futile gestures-the grand action which will have no consequences but will evince wild nobility of spirit in the face of a commonplace world. One typical Romantic painting of the time shows a moustached Polish officer standing alone, glowering defiantly on the battlefield, as if he could hold back the advancing enemy with his proud bearing and scornful expression alone. “Liberty Leading the People” is, in the end, a melancholic image of liberty: it is a demand for independence, for freedom from constraint, but it is empty of particular content. This futility helps explain why Delacroix became a leading figure in the Romantic camp in the culture wars of the day (which opposed the Classicists, led by Ingres, and the Romantics). The attachment to liberty in Delacroix’s picture is a spontaneous outpouring of emotion which does not pause to enquire into its rational foundation. The painting invites us to share a rapturous excitement; it seeks to heighten rather than restrain our passions. It is concerned with the urgency and grandeur of the passion, not its practical justification. Although I have brazenly referred to Delacroix as a Romantic, he resisted being classified in this way. Part of the problem is that the terms Romanticism and Classicism, in which his contemporaries saw themselves (and him), do not have clear significance. Moreover, these terms are not mutually exclusive: a painter could be (damnably, for those who like their classifications tidy) a classicising Romantic or a romanticising Classicist. And this is exactly how the two dominating figures of the period, Delacroix and Ingres, are best understood. The problem is this: a painting has many different aspects which can be considered in some degree of abstraction from each other. Thinking about the Liberty picture, we can consider its composition (or its form) in some degree of abstraction from its content. And within its composition we can discuss its linear composition separately from its colour composition. Each one of these aspects can be placed on the Romantic-Classic continuum. The linear composition of the Liberty picture is fairly classic: it involves the traditional pyramid form, rising from a wide base to its apex where the woman’s hand and the flagpole touch at the top of the picture. It was a device favoured by Raphael, and you can’t get more classic than that. But the colour composition is more brooding and intense than anything you find in Raphael; it is inspired by the dynamic arrangements of Rubens. So, even considering composition alone, the work has both Classic and Romantic affiliations. As for content, the figure of Liberty derives from a classical archetype: she is reminiscent of a Roman statue. The others, the top-hatted man, the pistol-waving boy, the cutlass- bearing mobster, are fiery archetypes at the heart of the Romantic canon. One way of construing the conflict between Classicism and Romanticism is through the figures of Raphael on one side and Rubens on the other, but another way, in the early 19th century, was linked to concerns about the expression of emotion. It would be wrong, however, to see the conflict between Classicism and Romanticism as a conflict between the suppression of feeling and the outpouring of feeling. Rather, the difference lies in the kind of emotion at play. In the Classical camp, emotion is generally channelled to noble (as well as rational) purpose. Thus, for example, David (an influence on both Delacroix and Ingres) painted works such as the “Oath of the Horatii” and “The Death of Socrates” which recruit emotion to the cause of republican virtue. The passions expressed are passionate devotion to the ideal of the republic (the three Horatii alone defend Rome against the monarchist enemy) or passionate devotion to reason (Socrates takes hemlock rather than give up his rational convictions). The passions which Romantic paintings present are often problematic for their bearers, rather than liberating as they were for the Horatii and Socrates. It was in this way that Hamlet was seen as a Romantic hero, brooding upon an emotional mess from which no appeal to reason could extract him; his emotions have a violence and dominion which leave reason impotent. But, rather than making us despise him, his situation (to the Romantic sensibility) elicits respect and fascination. It is in this sense, too, that Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther is a romantic prototype. We are invited to like Werther even though he is a foolish young man. Delacroix’s Romanticism is discernible, then, in the authority which he allows emotion: his interest and sympathy lie with problematic, melancholic or brooding emotions. so far, i have discussed Delacroix in a traditional art historical mode. This tradition, although venerable, no longer constitutes the orthodox approach of art historians to their subjects. It is more fashionable now to look past the way in which the artist conceived of the work and tease out the hidden assumptions and biases which are supposed to inform it. An influential exponent of this approach is John Berger, most notably in Ways of Seeing, the book based on a BBC television series of the early 1970s; it continues to sell well and is an important point of reference in thinking about the arts. Berger’s view was inspired by Marxist concerns (“every work of art tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class”). It is thus surprising that whereas in most other areas of thought Marxism is on the wane, we still find a broadly Marxist account surviving and even thriving in art history. A central contention of Ways of Seeing is that to represent an object in a work of art is to give the patron (or owner of the picture) a semblance of ownership of that object. What do paintings do for the person who owns them? “They show him sights: sights of what he may possess.” Oil is particularly suited to this because it allows the artist to create a real sense of the object. Verisimilitude plays up to the fantasy of possession. Another of Delacroix’s paintings has become a cause c??bre within this approach to art. The huge “Death of Sardanapalus,” now in the Louvre, illustrates the catastrophic moment when the ancient Assyrian king, Sardanapalus, has just heard that his army faces complete defeat. He has all his precious possessions, including the women of his harem, brought into his bedroom; he orders the palace to be torched and they are all destroyed together. It is a dramatically painted work, full of hot reds and contorted bodies. Sardanapalus himself reclines on his huge scarlet bed, surveying the destruction. A radical interpretation of this picture has read it as a fantasy “of men’s limitless power to enjoy, by destroying them, the bodies of women.” This is “really” what the picture is about, but its status as a great work of art in the Louvre masks its cruel content. The radical critique involves two steps. First, it uncovers a hidden assumption: women belong to men who have the right to destroy them. Second, the prestige of art lends its authority to the subliminal message. Calling the picture a great work of art, and Delacroix a genius, makes it harder for us to see its cruelty: we see a grand and lofty passion, tragedy and human drama, rather than a ghastly (but representative) man acting out a nightmarish scenario. According to this approach, we would read “Liberty Leading the People” with special attention to the idealised female figure of Liberty. Her centrality makes us forget that no women are actually shown fighting-women are not going to gain any liberty here. Identifying liberty as a woman, at the level of ideas, is a ruse against granting liberty to women in fact. We might even come to despise the picture. Berger appends an essay on advertising to his discussion of painting. The advertisement, he argues, sets out to make us want something (a particular suit or scent) and to make us believe that we will be happy only when we possess it. Advertising is the left-wing nightmare: we want to become like the rich rather than get rid of them. And what we envy we take to be good: we see the prevailing order as fundamentally good; the only problem is our lowly position within it. Berger’s claim is that there is a similarity in the way art and advertising function. We see Sardanapalus as an attractive figure (currently suffering a misfortune) rather than as a monster. The picture is an advertisement (and Delacroix a creative director) for an ideological product: a sexist notion of ownership. This approach to art provides art historians with an appealing identity. Rather than curators of luxury items for indulgent aesthetes, they are social sleuths tracking down repressive ideologies. They are helping in the great ideological housework of the day. There are two problems with this approach. First, it makes the viewer’s relation to a work of art unduly anxious. There is space for imaginative sympathy and interest which falls short of complete identification. We can have moments of destructive rage or cruelty without being cruel, raging tyrants. To transform a feeling of despair or cruelty into a beautiful composition is not to endorse or commend such a mood. We can enjoy the picture without colluding in its sexual politics. A second problem concerns the status of the subliminal message which is attributed to the work. Even if there are elements of sadistic fantasy embedded in “The Death of Sardanapalus,” does this mean that the most important things about the work have been identified? The hidden assumptions of the work are not, perhaps, decisive when it comes to understanding the artist’s achievement. There are many other aspects of the work which have a claim upon our attention and respect. a criticism of both the approaches to art which we have so far considered, the traditional and the radical, is that they have little to say about actually enjoying art. On the traditional wing, no one likes a work because it combines elements of Classical and Romantic style. Equally, on the radical wing, those who write about subliminal messages do not like the works because of their hidden content. But enjoyment, when it comes to art, is at the core of appreciation. Richard Wollheim made this point when he said that the greater a work of art, the more likable it is. This does not necessarily hold true of other value judgments. (Good people are not necessarily better company than rogues; the wise course of action is not always the most pleasurable.) If, then, we are to see Delacroix as a provider of aesthetic enjoyment, what is distinctive about the visual pleasure he offers? Baudelaire located the particular charm of Delacroix in his handling of colour. We must set his praise of colour within its historical context: the 19th century was characterised by envy rather than rivalry between the various art forms. In the 16th century there were arguments about whether painting was better than sculpture, or both inferior to poetry. By contrast, in the 19th century we find the poet frustrated by having, say, to describe colours, when it would be more effective to render them in paint. The painter despairs at his incapacity to communicate a state of mind because his work cannot capture the emotive response of sounds. One attempt to escape this was to pull all the art forms together into a single Gesamtkunstwerk (as pursued by Richard Wagner at Bayreuth). Another line of development was Baudelaire’s attempt to identify “correspondences” between different sense modalities. He sought to trace the links between colours, smells, sounds, shapes-synaesthesia: the kinship of distinct senses. This vague hunch, pursued systematically, encouraged the idea that a painter could render non-visual experience visually by identifying those visual aspects which corresponded most closely with the non-visual phenomenon. The sensitive colourist could thus identify a scent by finding just the right shade. The enjoyment of colour is thus not a mere sensory satisfaction; it is also a spiritual satisfaction which comes from grasping the state of mind which colour expresses. A delight which Delacroix offers, then, is the way in which he works with colour not merely to provide pleasing arrangements but to evoke mood and emotional atmosphere. To approach a painting in this way is to approach it not merely as something to be understood, or classified, but as a potential source of enjoyment. To my taste, one of the most enjoyable of Delacroix’s pictures is a portrait he painted (at about the same time as “Liberty Leading the People”) of his friend Baron Schwiter. The baron was also a painter but his own work is forgotten and he survives only through Delacroix’s compelling full-length portrait at the National Gallery. Although by our standards the baron is formally dressed (in a frock coat and extremely elegant court slippers), the picture is actually an intimate, informal one. We see the baron, aged 28, on the threshold of manhood, on a twilight terrace, below which a broad lawn extends towards the horizon. The sky is a numinous dark blue. Every aspect of the surrounding scene, its mood and manner, becomes part of the vision of the mind of the sitter: the tenderness of the sky mirrors the baron’s character, the melancholy distant cypresses at the end of the garden mirror the distant melancholy of Schwiter. It intimates a “community of understanding” between sitter and painter; the painting becomes a medium whereby “soul speaks to soul.” Hugh Honour has written that “such paintings seem to reflect the belief that art was not a luxury to be enjoyed by the rich (as in the early 18th century), but the rightful possession of an aristocracy of sentiment.” It is with this notion of an aristocracy of sentiment that we get closest to a just appreciation of Delacroix as a painter. The expression of emotion is indeed central to his work, but the emotions he is at pains to form into visual images are often subtle, refined and touched with melancholy; there can be vigour but it is a curious vigour, not easily related to achieving practical results in the world. Delacroix is able to let us enjoy this mood and pin it down in a particular, lasting image. It is a mood in which (even though little else in life may encourage us to inhabit it) we are liable to find ourselves spiritually at home. Is this last approach to art a retreat from the more serious tasks with which Delacroix’s art has been identified? If we contemplate the Liberty picture with an eye for its colour harmonies, its sensuous lines, and the qualities of the woman’s movement, are we involved in frivolous personal delectation? Do we downgrade Delacroix if we see him as the purveyor of visual pleasure rather than the promoter of political attitudes or the vehicle of the ideology of his age? It is not necessary to choose between these three options; it is possible to consider a painter in all these ways. But when it comes to Delacroix’s claim on our affections-his claim to have achieved something of lasting value-it is to the least conspicuous of these approaches that we must turn. There are, of course, millions of documents and objects which reveal the ideology of their age or communicate its political aspirations: newspapers, laws, social mores, fashions in dress. What is distinctive about the paintings of Delacroix is that they are also objects of intimate, sensuous and emotive delight. in 1864, the year following Delacroix’s death, Henri Fantin-Latour (remembered for his smoky, delicate teatime flower pictures) produced an “Homage” to Delacroix. This was not in itself a surprising thing to do; there was a well-established tradition of group portraits of painters gathered around a seminal figure whom they admired. What is surprising, perhaps, is the identity of the admirers. We can pick out Whistler, Manet-and Fantin-Latour himself. Yet there is little indication that Delacroix had any direct influence on these painters. Indeed, Delacroix is often described as having no followers; he did not run a teaching studio and had no pupils. But the group portrait is evidence of an altogether more interesting relationship: the master inspires those who come after him to be themselves, to follow his own example precisely by not copying him. In this homage we are taken back, by association, to an act of homage the young Delacroix paid to his mentor, G?cault. One day he had gone to G?cault’s studio and seen-as yet unfinished-“The Raft of the Medusa,” one of the great pictures of the era. Hanging today in the Louvre, it is an image of hope (the wretches on the raft try to attract a boat on the horizon) amid appalling suffering (they ended up eating one another). Its impact on Delacroix was immediate. He recalls running back to his own studio “mad” with enthusiasm-determined to do something of his own to equal it. This anecdote is an object lesson in inspiration; there are, after all, many other possible reactions to an art object one admires: envy, imitation, rebellion. Delacroix’s reaction provides a clue to his great personal achievement: it indicates his passionate need to do something of his own, yet it shows him able to integrate that need with an appreciation of-and a willingness to learn from-his predecessors.