Delacroix at the Met

Seeing 150 works in the Met’s first-ever-in-North-America retrospective of Eugene Delacroix I came to the conclusion that he was a one-trick pony. There was little or no development or change detectable from his first works, which were revolutionary in the 1820s, to his last and worst in the ’50s. The trick, so to speak, was the Romantic energy he applied to his brushwork and compositions. In contrast to the cool NeoClassicism of David and Ingres, Delacroix’s style was a breakthrough, and I understand why Art History treats him with due respect. But when you realize that his final years overlapped with such artists as Courbet, Corot, Jongkind and even Manet, you feel Delacroix is more the end of a tradition than the start of anything modern.
My main problem with Delacroix, however, is not his place in Art History, but the fact that his one trick, if you will, did not produce any works I like. Leaving aside the monumental “Liberty Leading the People,” which did not travel from the Louvre, and its precursor, “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” which was here, Delacroix’s paintings shared these characteristics: airlessness; blurry, out-of-focus figures and objects; faces that are indistinct, often in shadow or turned away; dark, dull colors with highlights of white and bright red; muddy throw-away backgrounds; a heavy, leaden feel; unattractive people; twisted, contorted bodies; people (and animals) in posed, frozen positions that inhabit the composition separately. Except for a few portraits and floral still lifes, all his paintings are of historical, literary or religious subjects or derive from his trip to North Africa. There is nothing of contemporary life – another line between Delacroix and Corot, et al.
The above characteristics aren’t necessarily “bad,” they just happen to run counter to my taste. Jean-Leon Gerome, for example, relied as much on North African and historic subjects, but I love his art: his colors are brighter, his lines are sharper, and he puts something interesting in every inch of his canvas. I also admire almost every painting by Gericault I see, and he provides the closest comparison: his horses are more lifelike, less posed; his shipwrecked survivors seem to be breathing the same air, not placed individually on Don Juan’s lifeboat. In general I am not a fan of melodrama in art, and many of Delacroix’s paintings verge on or fall into that category.
I have often stated that “The Natchez,” by Delacroix, is the worst painting on regular display at the Met, and it is in good company in this show. The crown, however, must go to “The Lion Hunt,” of which only the bottom half is on display. Coming at the end of his career, it is almost a parody of everything that has gone before: the twisted lion, the horse in a beauty pose, the Arab frozen with spear mid-air, fallen figures on the ground that could come from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, the dull, flavorless background, the substitution of energy for rationality, and one more Delacroix trademark: an obscure object in the picture’s lower left corner. At the other extreme, but also late Delacroix, is “Ovid Among the Scythians,” which is hanging twice at the Met, once in this exhibition, another version in the regular galleries. Where “Lion Hunt” is overly crowded, “Ovid” is notable for its sparsity. Four groups of small figures compete in unattractiveness, while a horse, with the cliched neck turn, takes center stage. If “Lion Hunt” is Rubens run amok, “Ovid” is Poussin or Claude made ugly.
I could go on: in “St. Sebastien” the figures are isolated statues; “Women of Algiers” makes a harem look uninviting; “Murder of the Bishop of Liege” fails as narrative, art and even melodrama; and “Sardanapolus,” seen here in the same reduced version from Philadelphia that was in Patrick Noon’s show at Mia, is Delacroix as orgy, the dead end of Romanticism. There were, in fact, only three paintings I coveted in the entire show: his “Self-Portrait” from the Louvre; “Mme Riesener” from the Met (her son, from the Louvre, is also not bad); and an undatable floral still life, “Basket of Flowers” (Lille), that is softer and more Redon-like than the other brutalist bouquet compositions hanging nearby. None of these are in the slightest Delacroix-like; they show that he could paint beautifully when he didn’t put his Romantic rebel cap on. By itself, “Missolonghi” would be a good representative of Delacroix’s place in art history, but I liked it so much more before I had to look at all the rest.

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