If there’s one art exhibition worth travelling for this year, then it is Delacroix at the Louvre in Paris. In collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre is staging a historic exhibition of epic proportions between 29 March and 23 July 23 this year. It features some 180 widely overlooked works and should not be missed.
It is the first major retrospective of Eugène Delacroix in more than half a century, with the last retrospective taking place in 1963, the centenary year of his death. And the exhibition also proves there was far more to the artist than the albeit incredible French Revolution-inspired painting La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (Liberty Leading the People) for which he is most famous.
This iconic masterpiece depicts Parisians being led over the barricades and bodies of the fallen by the empowering Goddess of Liberty who is triumphantly holding up France’s national flag. It’s a fine example of how Delacroix drew inspiration from dark historical events such as the Revolution, betraying a fascination for tragedy and turbulence, and the image has inspired everyone from author Victor Hugo to Coldplay.
The new Louvre exhibition also brings lesser-known works into the spotlight, often from the later stages in his career instead of just the early crowd-pleasing canvases. Delacroix’s most well-known works such as “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), the “Massacre at Chios” (1824) and the “Death of Sardanapalus” (1827), all date from the first decade of his career, nestled within a relatively short time frame. But his career actually spanned over 40 years (1821 to 1863), and so much remains to be discovered about his artistic evolution, as this exhibition proves.
Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854) at The Walters Art Museum
The Louvre exhibition in deliberately unapologetic in scope, emphasising the artist’s impressive range of themes and approaches. As well as the curious animal portraits, intimate drawings and flower still-lifes, you’ll also discover his lesser-known mysteriously religious depictions. One such piece on show, for example, is Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854). The piece is inspired by an incident recounted in three gospels of the New Testament, where a fierce storm breaks out while Jesus and his disciples are sailing across the Sea of Galilee in order to spread Christ’s message. The power of his brushstrokes erupts with force, demonstrating his skill for theatrical dramatisation: the canvas is his stage. “The genius of Delacroix is not debatable, it is not demonstrable, it is something one feels,” wrote the author, Alexandre Dumas.
You can see this work at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Othello and Desdemona (1849) at National Gallery of Canada
Delacroix was devoted to Enlightenment literature, especially Voltaire and Shakespeare, and the painting Othello and Desdemona (1849) betrays this passion with a touch of invention. “The great artist roams his own domain,” wrote Delacroix himself, “and there he offers you a feast to his own taste.” The scene depicted is Othello entering his marriage chamber to spend his first night with new wife Desdemona; but, wrongly convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, he smothers her with a pillow. The sombre tones of this painting are a subtle clue to the sinister ending, although part of the reason for the hues is due to the fact Delacroix worked on it in the evenings by lamplight. In any case, the piece shows that there’s often more than what meets the eye, and that even after centuries, there are still secrets lurking behind the brush strokes waiting to be revealed.
You can see this work at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada.
Lion Hunt (1855) at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux
After visiting Morocco in 1832, Delacroix’s sketches became the source material for the spectacularly frenzied chase of Lion Hunt (1855). The painting received mixed responses at the time, including criticism for its ‘garish’ explosion of colour, while others, such as Baudelaire, hurried to praise the extravagance. “Never have more beautiful, more intense colours been channelled through the eyes to the soul,” he wrote. The final work was damaged in the great fire of 1870, which destroyed much of the museum’s collection. But what remains is hailed as one of the earliest precursors to the abstract potential of Expressionism and the vibrant colours of Fauvism.
You can see this work at the at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux.
Ovid Among the Scythians (1856-1859) at National Gallery, London
In this overlooked masterpiece, the poet Ovid is depicted in exile after being banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus to the Black Sea port of Tomis in south-east Romania. The first version was showcased in the Paris Salon of 1859, the last Salon in which Delacroix took part. It’s a lesser known piece in part due to the swathe of negative criticism it received during its initial reception, owing to the slightly unconventional scale of its characters. Maxime Du Camp, for example, called the painting: “a spectacle of irremissible decadence”. However, today, the peculiar use of scale is actually seen to be one of its most intriguing assets.
You can see this work at the National Gallery in London, England.
Still Life With a Lobster (1827) at Musée du Louvre
“Nature is a dictionary,” Delacroix said, “one draws words from it” – but he also invented anew. This painting is important because it proves how Delacroix was unique, not always easily classified into one single movement. As the curator Allard said, “on the one hand he wanted to be original and the other wanted to fit in with the grand tradition of Flemish and Venetian artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.” Often referred to as a hybrid piece, the contents of this landscape still-life seem fairly random, satiating a sense of perplexity. Among the heap of lobsters there’s also a lizard lurking around, for example, with little explanation. Even the distance between the background and foreground is difficult to gauge, demonstrating his play with scale and expectation.
You can see this work at The Louvre.
Delacroix is at the Louvre, until 23 July 2018. Entry costs €15 (permanent collections + exhibitions).
The Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France, +33 1 40 20 50 50