Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art

Delve into the groundbreaking exhibition showcasing the genius of Eugène Delacroix at London’s National Gallery

It’s been 50 years since London has attempted to portray the genius of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), and due to no fault of its own.

Take his Liberty Leading the People (1830) for example. By providing France with Marianne, AKA the goddess of Liberty and the defining symbol of the French Republic, it’s unsurprising that this, alongside his other famous works, are at rest in The Louvre of Paris. For reasons that are not only patriotic, but quite simply, logistic, the ability to celebrate arguably the most talented French painter of the first half of the 19th century in any museum but France, is a near-enough impossible task.

But no challenge is too much for The National Gallery, of course.

Thanks to its latest exhibition:Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, London art-lovers are granted access to this revolutionary creative, despite being denied sight of his monumental masterpieces which must remain hanging in their Louvre-tomb.

On the contrary, The National Gallery proves that when it comes to portraying his talent, size really doesn’t matter.

By focusing on Delacroix’s cult-like following by modern masters of art, The National Gallery argues that Delacroix was in fact the first modern artist, who put forward risky, but fantastic new ideas about colour and painting technique.

Admittedly, on arrival, the evidence of modernity is at first hard to find. Powerful war scenes, sex and death communicate heroic terms that seem pretty predictable. But on closer inspection, you will come to realise that his use of colour and brushwork jilts the traditional stiff poses of the pasty classical style in the early 19th century. The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) which was condemned by his peers for its lack of compositional focus, provides a kaleidoscopic effect with a sense of improvisation – a style that’s free, and wildly energetic.

Delacroix’s fearlessness to redefine ideas of banal 19th century Europe is further underlined in the consecutive room, which highlights his fascination with North Africa. During his travels, he came to feel that the Jewish and Arab culture and dignity echoed that of the ancient Greeks and Romans; a “living antiquity” as he put it.

From ferocious lion hunts to the sultry Women of Algiers, Delacroix’s art is antithetical to that of ‘cold’ mythological and antique history subjects on show in Paris.

In the same room, you’ll spot Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s version of Delacroix’s ownThe Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1841), which executes the Delacroix vibrancy to perfection by cleverly combining a key Delacroix painting and a major Impressionist work all in one masterpiece.

The next galley is like walking into a virtual garden. It is in this room that the exhibition touches on Delacroix’s revolutionary flower paintings, which provided inspiration and instruction in a genre whose models were cheap. For artists at the turn of the 20th century, Delacroix’s example became a means to explore subjective feelings and dreams, and his offerings inspired an accessibility to any artist whether rich or poor (the penniless van Gogh being the perfect example).

The following room on religion is in stark contrast, portraying five dark, emphatic religious Delacroix pieces, yet in the room of flowers, the exhibition needs only one, large still life by Delacroix to prove his ability to rework genre – you’ll see how he inspired van Gogh’s famous Olive Tree series, mounted on the opposite wall.

And finally, the last room; a space that accentuates his obsession with synaesthesia. It is in this final gallery that his impact on art reaches a climax. From one tiny Delacroix painting, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, you won’t be able to miss how he has influenced the likes of Gauguin, Matisse and of course the improvisational master, Kandinsky. If you’re sceptical as to whether The National Gallery’s qualitative spin, rather than quantitative approach can be a success, this room will certainly set the record straight.

From van Gogh to Matisse, Cezanne to Renoir, you can’t leave the National Gallery’s show without realising his Kate Bush-like status in the minds of rebels famous 50 years after Delacroix’s death. No homage like Cezanne’s The Apotheosis of Delacroix (1890-04) proves this more ruthlessly, as his work shows himself and his fellow artists kneeling and praying as Delacroix is transported aloft. Furthermore, Henri Fantin-Latour’s Immortality (1889) which is placed emphatically at the end of the show, imagines an angel scattering roses on his name, inscribed across a Paris park.

By focussing, of necessity, on his smaller paintings, The National Gallery has actually done something quite extraordinary. We see a more intimate and spontaneous Delacroix than the one encountered in his famous paintings in the Louvre, yet leave with an equal appreciation for the artistic legacy that Delacroix had come to define.

Delacroix was prepared to alter anatomy as we know it, intensify colours and use techniques that many perceived as unrefined and scatty; proving that non-naturalistic forms can be the best ways to communicate what real emotion and real life looks and feels like. Delacroix was not undisciplined in his art; rather, he was gutsy enough to prove the press and public wrong by insisting individual creativity can mark new pathways for future generations. It was this belief that was precisely what made his art so relevant and modern.

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at the National Gallery until 22 May. For more information, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk