Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was perhaps the most remarkable artist of 19th-century France. If that seems a bold claim in the face of other powerful competitors, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at London’s National Gallery (until 22 May) makes a strong case for it.
It is undeniably extraordinary that the artist, who largely taught himself to paint from his observations of Flemish Baroque artists, Rubens above all, was at the time of his death in 1863 the most revered artist of the Parisian avant-garde. His credo, “The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye” could be said to have adumbrated a principal tenet of Modernism, art for art’s sake, and in view of his prioritisation of the visual, he became, as it were, the patron saint of artists as diverse as the Impressionists, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Courbet, Chassériau, Fantin La Tour, Matisse, Kandinsky and others. The foremost Romantic painter in France, Delacroix troped the usual sources—the Bible, Byron, Shakespeare, Orientalism in the form of references to his travels in North Africa—to create stories of love, murder, violence and war.
The last Delacroix exhibition in the UK was in 1964 and he has been a largely unknown quantity to the Anglo-Saxon public, not helped by the fact that many of his largest works are decorative schemes in situ in Paris churches and institutions and that his many big canvases in the Louvre are too fragile to move. Here, however, we are given not only a decent survey of Delacroix’s work, but, in grouping his and other artists’ paintings side-by-side we are shown very clearly the nature and extent of his influence in his lifetime and to the end of the 19th and in the early years of the 20th century.