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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Able at times to cry

The British Library has just put on display - in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures’ Gallery - one of only three journals kept by the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden. The Library recently paid nearly £50,000 at auction for the single volume, written in 1939, and says it ‘provides a fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations’ and ‘gives an intimate insight into Auden during one of the most important periods in his life’. Although there is no particular link with the diaries, I cannot resist appending a few lines of Auden’s poetry from my favourite poem, Able At Times To Cry.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, in 1907, the third of three sons, though the family moved to Solihull soon after, when his father took an appointment as a school medical officer. He was educated at boarding schools in Surrey (where he met Christopher Isherwood) and Norfolk, before entering Christ Church, Oxford, to study biology at first, then English. At Oxford, he made friends with, among others, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, all of whom would go on to find artistic or literary fame.

From the mid-1920s, through the 1930s, Isherwood acted both as Auden’s literary mentor and occasional lover. After a sojourn together in Berlin, Auden returned to Britain and took work teaching. T. S Eliot at Faber and Faber accepted his first book of poems, published in 1930. In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann, the daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann. It was a marriage of convenience to enable her to gain British citizenship and escape Nazi Germany. From the mid-1930s, Auden worked as a freelance lecturer and writer, and, for a while, he was employed by the GPO Film Unit, for which he wrote the famous Night Mail. Through his work for the GPO, he met the composer Benjamin Britten, with whom he went on to collaborate on many projects.

In early 1939, Auden sailed, with Isherwood, for the United States (the photograph shows them both in February 1939), and there met the poet Chester Kallman. Although their affair only lasted two years, they remained lifelong friends, and, from 1953, shared a home. During the war, Auden taught at various colleges. He was called up to be drafted in 1942, but was rejected on medical grounds; in 1945 he worked briefly with the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany studying German morale. In 1946, he became a naturalised American, and the following year he published The Age of Anxiety for which he won the Pullitzer Prize.

From 1948, Auden began to spend his summers in Europe, in Ishchia, Italy, and then in Kirchstetten, Austria. He was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to 1973; and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University between 1956 and 1961, though this latter post only required his presence for three weeks a year. He returned to live in Oxford in 1972, and died the following year. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poets.org, and the Poetry Foundation.

Auden is admired, Poets.org says, ‘for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. . . His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse.’

The Poetry Foundation says this: ‘Much of [Auden’s] poetry is concerned with moral issues and evidences a strong political, social, and psychological context. While the teachings of Marx and Freud weighed heavily in his early work, they later gave way to religious and spiritual influences. Some critics have called Auden an “antiromantic” - a poet of analytical clarity who sought for order, for universal patterns of human existence. Auden’s poetry is considered versatile and inventive, ranging from the tersely epigrammatic to book-length verse, and incorporating a vast range of scientific knowledge.’

Auden is known to have kept only three journals, and one of them came up for auction last June at Christie’s in London. The lot was described as follows: ‘Autograph manuscript journal and notebook, 30 August - 26 November 1939 (chiefly September and early October), autograph title ‘Journal August 1938 [sic]’, in pen and pencil, many passages lightly cancelled in pencil (?after copying), written primarily on rectos, the facing blanks often used for aphorisms, quotations, reading notes, metrical experiments and other fragmentary lines, the last c.20 leaves almost entirely verse drafts, quotations and records of popular phrases, the verse including drafts and sketches for at least eight sections of ‘New Year Letter’, as well as unpublished material, 93 leaves, 4to (258 x 198mm), plus a few blanks, in a notebook (label of ‘Eye-ease paper ... “Easy on the Eyes” ’), cloth-backed boards.’

The diary opens with a brief self-description: ‘At 32½ I suppose I shall not change physically very much for some time except in weight which is now 154 lbs . . . I am happy, but in debt . . . I have no job. My visa is out of order. There may be a war. But I have an epithalamion to write and cannot worry much’. Inevitably, Christie’s description says, ‘the early pages are written in the shadow of the impending outbreak of the war in Europe, and include a substantial narration (running to 8½ pages) of his activities and preoccupations on 1 September 1939, which sheds light on the composition and content of his famous poem of the same name’.

The lot description gives further information on the diary’s content: ‘Auden is perhaps not a natural diarist - the journal is always more preoccupied with thoughts and reflections rather than activities and observations, and in the latter pages takes on rather the character of a commonplace book or verse notebook; nevertheless, it reveals much about the poet’s associations at this pivotal period of his life (including with Kallman, George Davis, Gerald Heard, Archibald MacLeish, and others), his reading (Milton, Laura Riding, Flaubert), the importance to him of music (especially Wagner), his drinking, smoking and consumption of Benzedrine and Seconal, his dreams (including one of having a wasp down his trousers) and his intellectual preoccupations, including reflections on fascism/communism, sex, marriage (‘One wants marriage ... so that one does not feel abandoned. Apart from that one takes what is handy’), Thomas Mann, the Founding Fathers, science and medicine and much else.’

Christie’s quotes the following aphorisms and observations found in the diary:
- ‘All the great heretics Pascal, Rousseau, Lawrence, Kafka etc have been sick men’;
- ‘Mean like the American habit of washing one’s hands after pissing, as if the penis were an object, too filthy for any decent person to touch’;
- ‘All bureaucrats should be obliged to prove that they have a happy love-life, and immigration officials most of all’;
- ‘Tried to read Milton’s Apology for a Pamphlet but couldn’t. The adjectives are wonderful but there are too many of them’;
- ‘My hatred of women is such that if I am not afraid of them . . . I am cruel’;
- ‘It is impossible to listen to music and get an erection at the same time’.

The auction house description concludes: ‘Providing an incomparable insight into the poet’s activities and reflections at the turning point in his life, this is the most substantial and significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction.’

On 12 June, the British Library purchased the diary at Christie’s for £47,475. In a press release, it stated that ‘the journal, which provides a fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations, gives an intimate insight into Auden during one of the most important periods in his life.’ It further adds: ‘Auden’s reflections in the diary are particularly interesting as they were written during the turbulent period which saw the outbreak of war in Europe and after Auden leaves England for the United States with novelist Christopher Isherwood, a decision considered shamefully unpatriotic by the British media and which even occasioned strong criticism in Parliament.’ The journal is now on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

1 September 1939
‘Woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C[hester] was unfaithful. Paper reports German attack on Poland ... 6.0 pm. Benjamin [Britten] and Peter Piers [sic] came to lunch. Peter sang B’s new settings of Les Illuminations and some H. Wolf ... which made me cry. B played some of Tristan which seems particularly apposite today. Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war ... 10.30 Went to the Dizzy Club. A whiff of the old sad life. I want. I want. Je ne m’occupe plus de cela. Stopped to listen to the news coming out of an expensive limousine’

3 September 1939
‘War declared this morning at 7 a.m. Listened in the afternoon to a broadcast of the first 1½ acts of Tristan. Everyone very kind, some rather drunk. The frogs sang all night. We sang spirituals out on the lawn.’

Several of the famous (and gay) writers/artists associated with Auden were regular diarists, and have, previously, been the subject of Diary Review articles: Christopher Isherwood (Isherwood giving thanks), Benjamin Britten (Britten’s firecracker crits), and Stephen Spender (The ghost of a reader). Finally, on a personal note, my own favourite poem of all time is one by Auden, written in June 1937. Originally called As He Is, it was later also titled Able At Times To Cry, and - as I cannot find it anywhere else on the web - I can’t resist appending a couple of verses here.

‘Wrapped in a yielding air, beside
The flower’s soundless hunger
Close to the tree’s clandestine tide
Close to the bird’s high fever,
Loud in his hope and his anger,
Erect about his skeleton,
Stands the expressive lover
Stands the deliberate man.

Beneath the hot incurious sun,
Past stronger beasts and fairer
He picks his way, a living gun,
With gun and lens and bible
A militant enquirer,
The friend, the rash, the enemy,
The essayist, the able
Able at times to cry.’