Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The workings of Delacroix

‘The craft of the painter is the most difficult of all and it takes longest to learn. Like composing, painting requires erudition, but it also requires execution, like playing a violin.’ This is the great French romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, who died 150 years ago today. The quote comes from his diary, almost as famous in art circles as his painting, for it provides so much insight into the painter’s life. Early diary entries, for example, show his youthful passion for women; and running through all the journal there are rich references to his opinions on other artists (living and dead), as well as to the work on his own paintings and his thoughts on artistic techniques.

Delacroix was born at Charenton-Saint-Maurice, near Paris, in 1798. As a school boy, he won awards for drawing, and in 1815 began to study under the painter Pierre Guérin, and was trained in the neoclassical style of Jacques Louis David. His first painting - The Barque of Dante, also known as Dante and Virgil in Hell - was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1822. Though largely disliked by the public it was purchased by the government, and now hangs in the Louvre. That same year, he received the backing of Louis Thiers, the statesman and historian who, as interior minister in the 1830s, would put Delacroix in charge of architectural decorations.

In 1825, Delacroix travelled to England, where he had contact with, and was influenced by, the painters J. M. W. Turner and John Constable. Thereafter, he achieved popular success with canvasses of vivid colour, the most well-known of which, Liberty Leading the People, came in 1830. A year later he was awarded the Legion of Honour, and then, in 1832, he travelled to Morocco, a journey which inspired his painting hugely.

In Delacroix’s mature years, he received many government commissions for murals and ceiling paintings, and he also illustrated many works of literature. In 1857, after several unsuccessful attempts, he was finally elected to the Institut de France. Delacroix never married (despite his early interest in women - see below) and for the last two decades of his life was cared for by a housekeeper. He died on 13 August 1863. His paintings are considered to characterise 19th century romanticism, while his bold technical innovations strongly influenced the development of later modernist movements. Further biographical information is readily available from, for example, Wikipedia, Artble, or Musée Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix was not only a great painter, but he was a first class diarist too. His journal is thought by some to be among the most important works in the literature of art history, and certainly provides much insight into his life, his painting and his pictures. Although extracts had been published earlier, a full version in four volumes did not appear until 1893, compiled from hand-written copies by Paul Flat and René Piot. A new version, in three volumes, came in 1932. This led to a translation in English by Walter Pach in 1937, and another in 1951 by Lucy Norton. This latter version was edited and annotated by Hubert Wellington, and published by Phaidon. Much more recently, José Corti in Paris has published a new version in French of the journal, as edited by Michèle Hannoosh.

Writing for the website 19th Century Art Worldwide, David O’Brien says this of the new version: Eugène Delacroix’s Journal is one of the most famous and influential texts ever written by an artist, and yet, its contents and form have never been entirely stable. It has appeared in many, very different versions. The new edition under consideration here, edited by Michèle Hannoosh, completely revises those that have preceded it. It brings a new standard to documentary research on Delacroix and significantly changes our understanding of him.’ O’Brien goes on to give many details from Hannoosh’s introduction, including a synthesis of the complicated history surrounding Delacroix’s journals, and he explains in some detail why he believes the new version is so valuable.

The earliest editions of Delacroix’s journals in French can be found at Internet Archive. Wikiquote has a generous collection of extracts in English, and the Painting OWU blog has a few too. The following extracts from Delacroix’s diary (including the very first) are taken from the printed version translated by Lucy Norton and edited by Hubert Wellington. Wellington’s introduction concludes as follows: ‘There is one unifying quality in all that Delacroix did - his passionate quest for nobility, grandeur and the sublime, in art and in the lives of the great men who had formed his standards. It runs through his painting from ‘Dante and Virgil’ to ‘Jacob and the Angel’: the Journal shows it behind all the workings of his mind.’

3 September 1822
‘I am beginning my journal; the Journal I have so often planned to write. My keenest wish is to remember that I am writing only for myself; this will keep me truthful, I hope, and it will do me good. These pages will reproach me for my instability. I am beginning in good spirits.

I am staying with my brother. It is evening, and the church clock in Louroux has just struck nine or ten. I am sitting for a while in the moonlight, on the little bench by the door, trying to collect my thoughts. But although I feel contented enough this evening, I cannot recapture the mood of last night. Then there was a full moon, and seated on the bench outside my brother’s house I spent some hours of perfect happiness. Some friends had been dining with us, and after seeing them home we walked round the pond and came back to the house; my brother read the newspaper and I took up some of the Michelangelo engravings which I have brought with me. These wonderful drawings moved me deeply and put me into a happy frame of mind. In the clear sky a big red moon was slowly climbing between the trees, and in the midst of my meditations, and just as my brother happened to be talking about love, I heard Lisette’s voice in the distance. It has a sound that makes my heart beat faster and is her greatest charm, for she’s not exactly pretty, yet there is something about her of that quality which Raphael understood so well. The line of her arms is pure, like bronze, strong-looking yet delicate, and this girl, who is really not pretty, has a beguiling way with her, an enchanting mixture of sensuality and modesty - for instance, when she came in, and although I don’t usually care for her in tight Sunday clothes, I found her irresistibly attractive at that moment, especially for that heavenly smile I was speaking about. Someone was telling a bawdy story; it amused her yet caused her to look down and sideways in embarrassment. She was quite genuinely embarrassed, for when she answered some trivial question of mine her voice trembled a little and she avoided looking at me; besides, I could see the fluttering of her breast under her kerchief. I think it was on that same evening that I kissed her, in the dark passage as we came through the house into the garden on our way back from the village. I had stayed behind with her and allowed the others to go on ahead. She kept telling me to stop, but very softly and sweetly. But it all means very little; this is not important. The thought of her will not haunt me like a violent love affair. It will be nothing but a charming memory, a flower by the wayside. Her voice reminds me of Elizabeth Salter [an English girl in service with his sister] whom I’m already beginning to forget.

On Sunday morning I had a letter from Felix telling me that my picture had been hung in the Luxembourg [Dante and Virgil exhibited at the 1822 Salon in Paris]. Today is Tuesday, and I am still full of it. I must confess that it has done me a lot of good and that when I think about it the day brightens quite appreciably. At present I can think of nothing else; it has made me long to be back in Paris, where in all probability I should find nothing but concealed envy, and would soon be bored with what makes me feel triumphant now - and where there would be no Lisette, no moonlight, and none of this peaceful atmosphere.

Must try to remember all that I have planned to do in order to keep myself busy when I get to Paris, and all the ideas I’ve had about subjects for pictures.’

5 September 1822
‘Went out shooting with my brother; the heat was stifling. I shot a quail as I swung round and Charles congratulated me. What is more, it was our only success, although I had three shots at rabbits.

In the evening we went to meet Lisette, who was coming to mend some shirts for me. I took advantage of being a little behind the others to kiss her; she struggled, and it vexed me because I could see she meant it seriously. When we next met I tried again, but she quickly shook me off saying that if she wanted to she’d be sure and let me know. Then my feelings were really hurt and I pushed her away and strolled up and down in the lane under the rising moon. I came across her once more as she was drawing water for supper, but although I felt inclined to sulk and not go back to her I finally yielded to temptation. ‘Then you don’t love me?’ - ‘No!’ - ‘Do you like anyone else?’ - ‘I don’t love anybody’, or some such ridiculous answer, meaning, ‘Let me alone!’ This time, hurt and annoyed, I crossly let go her hand and turned my back on her. She gave a faint laugh, it was not really a laugh but the remains of her half-serious protest, but it has left a disagreeable taste.’

3 March 1847
‘Today, Wednesday, repainted the rocks in the background of the ‘Christ’ and finished the lay-in, the Magdalen, and the naked figure in the foreground. I wish I had applied the paint rather more thickly in this lay-in. It is incredible how time smooths out a picture; my Sibyl seems to me to have sunk into the canvas, already. It is a thing I must watch carefully.’

6 March 1847
‘After a good night’s rest I went back to the studio where I recovered my good humour. I am looking at the ‘Hunts’, by Rubens. The one I prefer is the hippopotamus hunt; it is the fiercest. I like its heroic emphasis, I love its unfettered exaggerated forms, I adore them as much as I despise those gushing empty-headed women who swoon over fashionable portraits and M. Verdi’s music.’

10 July 1847
‘Painted the Magdalen in the ‘Entombment’.

Must remember the simple effect of the head. It was laid in with a very dull, grey tone. I could not make up my mind whether to put it more into shadow or to make the light passages more brilliant. Finally, I made them slightly more pronounced compared with the mass and it sufficed to cover the whole of the part in shadow with warm and reflected tones. Although the light and shadow were almost the same value, the cold tones of the light and the warm tones of the shadow were enough to give accent to the whole.’

18 September 1847
‘The craft of the painter is the most difficult of all and it takes longest to learn. Like composing, painting requires erudition, but it also requires execution, like playing a violin.’

The Diary Junction

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