If the French painter Delacroix was an animal, he would be a tiger — ferocious, brooding, and playful. “Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother” (1830) wasn’t meant as a self-portrait, but it emblematizes the artist’s formidable influence on art history. Pablo Picasso once vented, “That bastard. He’s really good.” Paul Cézanne observed more demurely, “You can find us all in … Delacroix,” referring to how Delacroix inspired many artists that followed him. This quiet New Year’s week is your last chance to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective before it closes on January 6. Although this exhibition is a slimmed down version of what was on at the Louvre last Spring, it’s still worth a trip to the Met.
This show might have felt like a blip on your radar during the packed Fall 2018 art season. Let’s be honest — devoting an exhibition to a dead white man feels about as novel as eggnog on Christmas. But actually, the Louvre iteration was the first Delacroix retrospective in France since 1963. The Met iteration is the first large-scale Delacroix retrospective staged in North America.
Few artists of the early 19th century understood melancholia as profoundly as Delacroix. Only Francisco Goya could stand as his rival when it came to such powerful depictions of defeat, loss, sadness, bitterness, and resignation. And such themes speak volumes in 2019.
In some of Delacroix’s writings about his melancholic approach to art, he mused about Michelangelo, to whom he often compared himself. These writings read more as projections of Delacroix’s own interests and values than as historically accurate characterizations of the Renaissance artist. At the Met, a revealing little portrait, titled “Michelangelo in His Studio” (1849–50), seems to illustrate a vivid passage from an essay Delacroix wrote about Michelangelo in 1830:
I picture him late at night, struck with fear at the spectacle of his creations, rejoicing in the secret terror that he wanted to awaken in men’s souls … It was then this expression of a profound melancholy, or perhaps his agitation, his dread, in thinking of his future life: the regrets of old age, fear of an obscure and frightening future.
Awakening terror and stirring the pot of melancholy are recurring themes in many of the best paintings in this retrospective. Such dark and brooding feelings are particularly relatable as 2019 opens on a sour note. This exhibition became a source of solace for me as 2018 let-downs piled up.
At first glance, it’s tempting to dismiss “The Battle of Nancy” (1831) as just another Old Master picture valorizing war. But this painting is actually anything but triumphant. In the lower left corner, we see the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (1467–1477) getting lanced by the knight. Delacroix’s original audience knew how this story would end: this was the fatal blow that killed Charles the Bold on the battlefield. And with him fell the Duchy of Burgundy, which was once a rival to France, but was soon annexed and absorbed into the growing kingdom. The painting’s monumental scale puts this tragic moment on steroids, serving not only as a grim reminder that France was not always a unified kingdom, but dramatizing how we all sometimes fail.
In a similar vein, this exhibit’s requisite Big Jesus Picture does not portray a triumphant resurrected Christ. Instead, it illustrates Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane — a more vulnerable scene from Christian iconography, in which Christ realized he would soon be arrested and put to death, and sat in a garden of olives, agonizing over his suffering to come. What gravitas in the face! What pathos in the arm raised up, telling the weeping angels there is nothing that can be done. Here, again, we see Delacroix’s penchant for the painterly equivalent of the sad song. So many painters in art history struggle to depict the mixture of agony and contemplation in this scene — it’s easier to illustrate the all-out suffering of the crucifixion than it is to render the balance between tranquility, pain, and anticipation seen here. So it’s quite the tour de force that Delacroix pulled off this composition with such potency.
Delacroix pivoted from angels to demons in a ravishing lithograph of Mephistopheles, which he created as part of a set of illustrations for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. This series, dating from a period when lithography was still a novel and innovative technique, has never been exhibited in its entirety before. You don’t need to read Faust’s CliffsNotes to get a feel for the twisted demonic figure depicted here: Mephistopheles’ limbs writhe and contort as he flies over a city, the sun laying low on the horizon. This haunting, gloomy picture hits home in a time when much of the world feels like a living hell.
Leave it to Delacroix to make a shipwreck look gorgeous. A woman glared at me in the gallery as I moaned at the sea’s bejeweled hues of sapphire, emerald, onyx. Perhaps she was worried about why I might admire such a grisly scene — the pictured seafarers are drawing lots to pick who in the group they will eat next to stay alive. The source is a poem by Lord Byron about floating cannibals; it’s a powerful metaphor for people turning on each other when times get hard.
When Delacroix wrote about rejoicing in the “secret terror” and awakening our souls, he was arguably referring to catharsis as healing. His lush paintings make you feel Romanticism in your guts, offering an antidote to some of today’s more bloodless, blandly cerebral art. We all need deep release as 2019 gets off to a predictably bad start in politics. So go over to the Met, get gloomy, and brood.
Delacroix, curated by Asher Miller, Sébastien Allard, and Côme Fabre, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through Sunday, January 6th
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