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Eugene Delacroix


A great painting—but for Delacroix strictly a one-off. He hated crowds, feared revolutionary turmoil, loathed popular hysteria, and thought mobs did nothing but break and smash. Yet if you want an inspiring vision of freedom, then Liberty Leading the People is almost irresistible. “To be led into a cloudless future by a beautiful half-naked woman” one critic has written, “is a dream that never fails of its effect”; and the excited men panting behind her could only agree.

Kenneth Clark wrote that “it is one of the few programmatic pictures of revolution that has any claim to be a work of art”. Having enthusiastically endorsed the Paris uprising of 1830, however, Delacroix never painted this sort of thing again. He was very ambitious and sought recognition as one of his country’s leading artists. His relations with those on high were generally good. He did not wish to be known as a trouble maker. After contributing this lasting image to the annals of popular revolt he turned away from insurrection forever.

Besides having generally conservative instincts, the painter was also a classicist, a solitary, a talented writer and an altogether engaging man. In John Russell’s words, “Delacroix in his Journal is one of the most cogent arguments for the human race. That we are in the company of a great man is never in doubt. But whereas not every great man gains from proximity, or can usefully be studied in isolation from his work, Delacroix the diarist begins with our respect and ends, just on half a million words later, with our unbounded affection. Incomplete as they are, his diaries rank among the fragmenta aurea of European civilization. They are passionate but not scabrous, worldly but not heartless, intimate but not indiscreet, animated but not rackety, profound but not ponderous, discursive but not self-indulgent. Above all, they are truthful and direct.”

Below are selections from various writings (often condensed or elided) along with comments by friends, critics, and others. When not otherwise identified they are from the Journal or the letters of Delacroix.


The enemy of all painting is grey. To speak truly, there are neither lights nor shades. There is a color mass for each object, reflected differently on all sides. I discovered one day that linen has green reflections and violet shadows. I notice that it is the same with the sea… I expect this law applies to everything. The special charm of watercolor, beside which any painting in oil always appears rusty and yellowed, is due to the inherent transparency of the paper.

Without boldness, and extreme boldness, there are no beauties. One must dare to be oneself. One must be very bold. Thus one has to surpass oneself, in order to be everything one can be… There can be no rules for great souls; rules are only for those who have merely a talent that can be acquired—not for genius… The most sublime effects are often the result of pictorial license. For example, the unfinished appearance of Rembrandt’s works, and the exaggerations in Rubens. Mediocre men never have such daring, they never go beyond themselves. Method cannot supply a rule for everything, it can only lead everyone to a certain point.

Delacroix is the most suggestive of all painters. His works, even his secondary and inferior paintings, give one the most to think about. They recall to the memory poetic emotions and ideas already known but which one thought forever buried in the night of the past. Eugene Delacroix was not only an artist in love with his craft. He was also a man of broad general culture, in contrast to other modern artists, most of whom are little more than famous or obscure daubers, sad specialists, and pure craftsmen… Baudelaire

Delacroix’s imagination! It has never feared to scale the heights of religion. Heaven belongs to it as does hell, as do war, Olympus, and sensuality. He is indeed the type of the painter-poet! He is one of the chosen few, and the breadth of his mind includes religion in its domain. His imagination, glowing as a chapel ablaze with light, burns with every flame and every purple passion. All the sorrow there is in passion moves him. All the splendor there is in the Church illumines him. On his inspired canvases he pours in turn blood, light, and shadows. Baudelaire

What I have been saying about the power of painting now becomes clear. If it has to record but a single moment it is capable of concentrating the effect of that moment. The painter is far more master of what he wants to express than the poet or musician who are in the hands of interpreters; even though his memory may have a smaller range to work on, he produces an effect that is a perfect unity and one which is capable of giving complete satisfaction.

Moreover, the painter’s work does not suffer so much from variations in the manner in which it is understood in different periods. Fashions change, and the bias of the moment may cause a different value to be placed upon his work, but ultimately it is always the same, it remains what the artist intended it to be, whereas this cannot be said of the art of the theatre, which has to pass through the hands of interpreters.

When the artist’s mind is not there to guide the actors or singers the performance no longer corresponds to his original intention; the accent disappears, and with it, the most subtle part of the work is lost. Happy indeed is the author whose work is not mutilated, an insult to which he is exposed even during his lifetime. Even the change of an actor alters the whole character of a work.


Common men pass treasures by; they respond to the spectacle of nature as guests at a banquet who are neither hungry nor thirsty.

This morning, and yesterday evening as well, I went for a stroll in the deserted and overgrown garden of the poor gendarmes. Their neat little rows of cabbages, and the vines and fruit trees, which must have been a consolation to them and some small help in their poverty, have almost disappeared, ruined by passers-by, the wind, and other accidents of various kinds. Near the Hermitage I found an immense clearing where the trees had been cut down. Each year I feel heartbroken to find that part of the forest has disappeared, and always one of the loveliest, where the trees were thickest and most ancient. There used to be a charming little shady path just here.

Before nature itself it is our imagination that makes the picture; we see neither the blades of grass in a landscape, nor the blemishes of the skin in a pretty face.

The forms of a model, whether tree or man, are only a dictionary to which the artist goes in order to reinforce his fugitive impressions, or rather to confirm them… Novelty is in the mind that creates, not in the nature that is painted… You who know there is always something new, show them what they have failed to recognise. Make them believe that they have never before truly heard the nightingale or seen the ocean.


I saw Sidonia last Tuesday. What ravishing moments! How lovely she looked lying naked on the bed! It was mostly love-making and kisses.

Mme Conflans came in during the evening and was charming. Wretched slacker that I am! I must admit that my life is fairly full just now, but I am apt to get into a fever of excitement that makes me very vulnerable. I thought her most attractive in her round hat with the little feathers. She seems to like me. I must remember to send her the name of the parasol shop. Tomorrow if possible.

To the studio at nine o’clock. Laure came. We continued with the portrait. It’s an extraordinary thing, but although I wanted to make love to her all the time she was posing, as soon as she began to leave—rather hurriedly as a matter of fact—I did not feel like it at all; I suppose I needed time to collect myself.

I need a mistress to keep my flesh in subjection. I’m terribly worried about it, and struggle with my better self when I’m in the studio. Sometimes I long for any woman to come along. God grant that Laure comes tomorrow! Saw Cogniet, and the picture by Géricault, also the Constables. It was too much for one day. Came home about five o’clock. Spent two hours in the studio. Great want of sex. I am utterly abandoned.

‘May I hope, loveliest of women, to see you on Thursday? And will you forgive my not having been to call on you? I flatter myself that you will not be as harsh as you threatened, and that you cannot be so cruel as to pass my yellow door without coming in. I expect it will be in the afternoon, as before. If it’s not presuming too far, may I ask you to give me a little more of your time?’

Now for the struggle! Shall I send it or not?


Eugene Delacroix was a curious mixture of scepticism, politeness, dandyism, violent will, cunning despotism, and finally a kind of special kindness and quiet tenderness that always goes hand in hand with genius. His father belonged to that breed of strong men, the last of whom we knew in our childhood—some, fervent followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, others, resolute disciples of Voltaire. All of them participated with equal obstinacy in the French Revolution, and the survivors, Jacobins or Cordeliers, rallied in perfect good faith (an important point to be noted) to the standard of Bonaparte. Baudelaire

‘Man is born free’ says Rousseau. Was there ever a more dismal piece of nonsense? In the whole of creation is there any being more of a slave than man? His weakness and his needs make him dependent on the elements and his fellow men. Yet external matters are the least of his troubles. The passions he finds within his own breast are the cruellest tyrants he has to fight, and one might add that to resist them is to go against his very nature. Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix always retained traces of his revolutionary origins. Of him, as of Stendhal, it may be said that he had a great fear of being duped. Skeptical and aristocratic, he knew passion and the supernatural only by forcing himself to frequent the world of dreams. Hating crowds, he looked upon them as little more than statue-breakers, and the wanton damage done to a few of his works in 1848 was not calculated to convert him to the political sentimentalism of our time. Baudelaire

Delacroix had the utmost contempt for the age in which he lived, for its crass materialism and complacent belief in progress; and his art is almost entirely an attempt to escape from it. He escaped into the subjects of romantic poetry, in particular that of Shakespeare, Byron and Walter Scott. Some of his greatest pictures were inspired by Byron, and he had a Byronic power of self-identification with the forces of the sublime—in particular ‘the roaring of lions and the destructive sword’. Kenneth Clark

True moralists and philosophers (Marcus Aurelius and Jesus Christ) never talked politics. Equal rights and other such vain imaginings were not their concern. All they enjoined on mankind was resignation to fate, not to the unknown fatum of the ancient world, but to the constant need to submit to the harsh decrees of nature—a need which no one can deny and no philanthropist can mitigate. They asked nothing more of the sage than that he play his part in his appointed place amidst a general harmony. Illness, death, poverty, spiritual suffering, these are with us always and will torment us under any form of government; democracy or monarchy, it makes no odds. Delacroix


Visiting North Africa in 1832 as part of a diplomatic mission, his first response was wildly excited, pictorial, and romantic. The Moroccans in their flowing gowns and cloaks made him think he was in Ancient Rome. But the insults directed at him as a Christian, and the spectacle of Arab religious frenzies (seen in his painting above, ‘The Fanatics of Tangier’) brought him down to earth.

I’ve just arrived in Tangier. I have rushed through the town. I am quite bewildered by all that I’ve seen. But I can’t let the mail boat go—it’s leaving shortly for Gibraltar—without telling you something of my amazement. We landed in the midst of the strangest crowd of people. The Pasha of the city received us, surrounded by his soldiers. One would need to have twenty arms and forty-eight hours a day to give any tolerable impression of it all. The Jewesses are quite lovely. I’m afraid it will be difficult to do more than paint them: they are real pearls of Eden. We were given a superb reception, by local standards. They treated us to the most peculiar military music. At the moment I’m in a dream, seeing things I’m afraid will vanish too soon.

The picturesque is here in abundance At every step one sees ready-made pictures, which would bring fame and fortune to twenty generations of painters. You’d think yourself in Rome or in Athens, minus the Attic atmosphere; the cloaks and togas and a thousand details are quite typical of antiquity. A rascal who’ll mend the vamp of your shoe for a few coppers has the dress and bearing of Brutus or Cato of Utica.

I told you in my last letter that we had been granted an audience with the emperor. From that moment we were supposed to have permission to walk freely about the town; but I was the only member of our party to take advantage of this privilege, since these people have such a loathing for the dress and appearance of Christians that one must always be escorted by soldiers… Every time I go out I am escorted by a huge gang of curious onlookers, who lavish insults on me—dog, infidel, caracco, etc., and jostle one another to get near me and make contemptuous grimaces in my face… I have spent most of my time here in utter boredom, because it was impossible to draw anything from nature openly, even the meanest hovel; if you so much as go on to the terrace you run the risk of being stoned or shot at. The Moors are fantastically jealous, and it is on these terraces that their women usually take the air or visit one another.

Everything is ruled by custom and tradition. The Moor gives thanks to God for his bad food and wretched clothing; he thinks himself only too lucky to have them. It must be hard for them to understand the easy-going ways of Christians and the restlessness that sends us perpetually seeking after new ideas. We notice a thousand things in which they are lacking, but their ignorance is the foundation of their peace and happiness. Can it be that we have reached the end of what a more advanced civilization can produce?

Work and solitude

Man is a social animal who dislikes his fellow men. Explain this idiosyncrasy: the more intimately a man lives with another human being as foolish as himself, the more he seems to want to harm this unfortunate individual: domestic bliss. Two friends, who enjoy meeting once a week and miss one another when they are parted, conceive the strongest aversion for each other if circumstances, such as a voyage, compel them to live together for any length of time…

I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? Dufresne is perfectly right; the things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotion to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way and thus the impression is weakened for both.

Everything tells me that I need a more solitary life. The loveliest and most precious moments are slipping away in amusements which, in truth, bring me nothing but boredom. The constant expectation of being interrupted is already beginning to weaken what little strength I have left after wasting my time for hours the night before. When memory has nothing important to feed on, it pines and dies. Countless valuable ideas miscarry because there is no continuity in my thoughts. They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates, inside my very heart; I feel his hand everywhere.

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordered life will bring, think of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses that other people’s society entails, think of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it. Nothing is better than having some task to perform each day.

Posted in Arts and Letters, Artists And Politics, People.