Eugene Delacroix

THE death of Eugene Delacroix cuts the last bond between the great artistic epoch which commenced with the Bellini and that which had its beginning with the nineteenth century, epochs as diverse in character as the Venice of 1400 and the Paris of 1800. In him died the last great painter whose art was moulded by the instincts and traditions that made Titian and Veronese, and the greatest artist whose eyes have opened on the, to him, uncongenial and freezing life of the nineteenth century. In our time we have a new ideal, a new and maybe a higher development of intellectual art, and as great a soul as Titian’s might to-day reach farther towards the reconciled perfections of graphic art: but what he did no one can now do; the glory of that time has passed away, — its unreasoning faith, its wanton instinct, revelling in Art like children in the sunshine, and rejoicing in childlike perception of the pomp and glory which overlay creation, unconscious of effort, indifferent to science, — all gone with the fairies, the saints, the ecstatic visions which framed their poor lives in gold. Only, still reflecting the glory, as eastern mountains the sunken sun, came a few sympathetic souls kindling into like glow, with faint perception of what had passed from the whole world beside. Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, and Delacroix, kept the line of color, now at last utterly extinguished. Now we reason, now we see facts; sentiment is out of joint, and appearances are known to be liars; we have found the greater substance; we kindle with the utilities, and worship with the aspiring spirit of a common humanity; we banish the saints from our souls and the gewgaws from our garments, and walk clothed and in our right minds in what we believe to be the noonday light of reason and science. We are humanitarian, enlightened. We begin to comprehend the great problems of human existence and development; our science touches the infinitely removed, and apprehends the mysteries of macroeosmic organism : but we have lost the art of painting ; for, when Eugene Delacroix died, the last painter (visible above the man) who understood Art as Titian understood it, and painted with such eyes as Veronese’s, passed away, leaving no pupil or successor. It is as when the last scion of a kingly race dies in some alien land. Greater artists than he we may have in scores ; but he was of the Venetians, and, with his nearly rival, Turner, lived to testify that it was not from a degeneracy of the kind that we have no more Tintorets and Veroneses; for both these, if they had lived in the days of those, had been their peers.

Painting, as the Venetians understood it, is a lost art, because the mental conditions which made it possible exist no longer. The race is getting to that mannish stature in which every childlike quality is a shame to it; and the Venetian feeling for and cultivation of color are essentially childlike traits. No shadows of optics, no spectra of the prism clouded their passionate enjoyment of color as it was or as it might be, no uplifted finger of cold decorum frightened them into gray or sable gloom; they garbed themselves in rainbows, and painted with the sunset. Color was to them a rapture and one of the great pursuits of their lives; it was music visible, and they cultivated it as such, — not by rule and measure, by scales and opposites, through theories and canons, with petrific chill of intellect or entangling subtilty of analysis. Their lives developed their instincts, and their instincts their art. They loved color more than everything else; and therefore color made herself known to them in her rarest and noblest beauty. They went to Nature as children, and Nature met them as a loving mother meets her child, with her happiest smile and the richest of her gifts. I do not believe that to any Venetian painter the thought of whether a given tint was true ever came; if only his fine instinct told him it was lovely, he asked no question further, — and if he took a tint from Nature, it was because it was lovely, and not because he found it in Nature. Our painter must see, — their painter could feel; and in this antithesis is told the whole difference between the times, so far as color is concerned.

But while Delacroix worked in the same spirit and must be ranked in the same school, there were differences produced by the action of the so different social and intellectual influences under which he grew up. His nature was intensely imaginative, and so was preserved from the dwarfing effect of French rationalism and materialism: their clay could not hide his light or close his eyes, for imagination sees at all points and through all disguises, and so his spiritual and intellectual nature was kept alive when all Art around him was sinking into mere shapely clay. Classic taste and rationalistic pride had left in his contemporaries little else than cold propriety of form and color, studied negations of spontaneity and imaginative abandon; yet such was the force of his imagination, that these qualities, almost more than any other, characterize his conceptions: but the perpetual contact and presence of elements so uncongenial to his good genius produced their effects in a morbid sadness, in his feeling for subject, and in a gloomy tone of coloring, sometimes only plaintive, but at other times as melancholy as the voice of a lost soul. When healthiest, as in his Harem picture in the Luxembourg Gallery, it is still in the minor key of that lovely Eastern color-work, such as we see in the Persian carpets, and to me always something weird and mysterious and touching, like the tones of an Æolian harp, or the greetings of certain sad-voiced children touched by the shadow of death before their babyhood is gone. No color has ever affected me like that of Delacroix, — his Dante pictures are the “Commedia” set in color, and palpitating with the woe of the damned.

His intellect was of that nobler kind which cannot leave the questions of the Realities; and conscious kindred with great souls passed away must have given a terrible reality to the great question of the future, the terror of which French philosophy was poorly able to dispel or lead to anything else than this hopeless gloom. His great picture of the plafond of the Salon d’Apollon, in the Louvre, seems like a great ode to light, in the singing of which he felt the gloom break and saw the tones of healthy life lighten in his day for a prophetic moment: but dispelled the gloom never was. What he might have been, bred in the cheerful, unquestioning, and healthy, if unprogressive faith of Venice, we can only conjecture, seeing how great he grew in the cold of Gallic life.

His health was, through his later life, bad; and for my own part, I believe that the same morbid feeling manifested in his art affected injuriously his physical life, aided doubtless by the excessive work which occupied all his available hours. For many years previous to his death he alternated between periods of almost unbroken labor, taking time only to eat and sleep, and intervals of absolute rest for days together. In his working fits, so deranged had his digestion become, he could take only one meal, a late dinner, each day, and saw no visitors except in the hour preceding his dinner.

Having gone to Paris to spend a winter in professional studies, I made an earnest application by letter to Delacroix to be admitted as a pupil to his atelier. In reply, he invited me to visit him at his rooms the next day at four, to talk with him about my studies, proffering any counsel in his gift, but assuring me that it was impossible for him to receive me into his studio, as lie could not work in the room with another, and his strength and occupations did not permit him to have a school apart, as he once had. At the appointed time I presented myself, and was received very pleasantly in a little drawing-room at his house in the Latin Quarter. His appearance, to me, was prepossessing; and though I had heard French artists speak of him as morose and bearish, I must say that his whole manner was most kindly and sympathetic, though not demonstrative. He was small, spare, and nervous-looking, with evident ill-health in his face and bearing, and under slight provocation, I should think, might have been disagreeable, but had nothing egoistic in his manner, and, unlike most celebrated artists, did n’t seem to care to talk about his own pictures. After personal inquiries of my studies and the masters whom I knew and had studied, and most kindly, but appreciative criticism on all whom we spoke of, “Ah,” said he, “ I could not have an atelier (i. e. school - atelier') now, the spirit in which the young artists approach their work now is so different from that of the time when I was in the school. Then they were earnest, resolute men : there were Delaroche and Vernet,” and others he mentioned, whose names I cannot remember, “ men who went into their painting with their whole souls and in seriousness; but now the students come into the atelier to laugh and joke and frolic, as if Art were a game ; there is an utter want of seriousness in the young men now which would make it impossible for me to teach them. I should be glad to direct your studies, but the work on which I am engaged leaves me no time to dispose of.” I asked if I could not sometime see him working; but he replied that it was quite impossible for him to work with any one looking on.

I asked him where, to his mind, was the principal want of the modern schools. He replied, “ In execution; there is intellect enough, intention enough, and sometimes great conception, but everywhere a want of executive ability, which enfeebles all they do. They work too much with the crayon, instead of studying with the brush. If they want to be engravers, it is all well enough to work in charcoal; but the execution of an engraver is not that of a painter. I remember an English artist, who was in Paris when I was a young man, who had a wonderful power in using masses of black and white, but he was never able to do anything in painting, much to my surprise at that time; but later I came to know, that, if a man wants to be a painter, he must learn to draw with the brush.”

I asked him for advice in my own studies; to which he replied, “ You ought to copy a great deal, — copy passages of all the great painters. I have copied a great deal, and of the works of almost everybody ”; and as he spoke, he pointed to a line of studies of heads and parts of pictures from various old masters which hung around the room.

I am inclined to think that he carried copying too far; for the principal defect of his later pictures is a kind of hardness and want of thought in the touch, a verging on the mechanical, as if his hand and feeling did not keep perfectly together.

I regret much that I did not immediately after my interview take notes of the conversation, as he said many things which I cannot now recall, and which, as mainly critical of the works of other artists, would have been of interest to the world. I only remember that he spoke in great praise of Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds. As his dinner-hour drew near, I took my leave, asking for some directions to see pictures of his which I had not seen ; in reply to which, he offered to send me notes securing me admission to all the places where were pictures of his not easily accessible, — a promise he fulfilled a day or two after. I left him with as pleasant a personal impression as I have ever received from any great artist, and I have met many.

The works of Delacroix, like those of all geniuses, are very unequal; but those who, not having studied them, attempt to estimate them by any ordinary standard will be far from the truth in their estimate, and will most certainly fail to be impressed by their true excellence. The public has a mistaken habit of measuring greatness by the capacity to give it pleasure ; but the public has no more ignorant habit than this. That is no great work which the popular taste can fully appreciate, and no thoroughly educated man can at once grasp the full calibre of a work of great power differing from his own standard. It took Penelope’s nights to unweave the web of her days’ weaving, and no sudden shears of untaught comprehension will serve to analyze those finer fabrics of a genius like Delacroix. Perhaps, owing to many peculiarities of his nature, showing themselves in unsympathetic forms in his pictures, he may always fall short of complete appreciation by the educated taste even, — and, indeed, to me he seems, of all the great colorists, the one least likely ever to win general favor, but not from want of greatness.

I have often heard his drawing spoken of as bad. It was not the drawing of a dessinateur, but there was method in its badness. I remember hearing a friend say, that, going into his studio one day, he found him just in the act of finishing a hand. He said, “ It looks very badly drawn, but I have painted it three times before I could get it right. Once I had it well drawn, and then it looked very badly; and now it suits me better than when it was well drawn.” A neatly drawn figure would have made as bad an appearance in one of his pictures as a dandy in the heat and turmoil of a battle-field; yet, as they came, all the parts were consistent with the whole, reminding one of what Ruskin says of Turner’s figures.

For vigor and dash in execution, and the trooping energy of some of his compositions, he reminds me more of Rubens than of any other; but his composition has a more purely imaginative cast than that of Rubens, a purer melody, a far more refined spiritualism. Nothing was coarse or gross, much less sensual. His was the true imaginative fusion from which pictures spring complete, subject to no revision. Between him and Turner there were many points of resemblance, of which the greatest was in a common defect, — an impulsive, unschooled, unsubstantial metlod of execution, contrasting strongly with the exact, deliberate, and yet, beyond description, masterly touch of Titian and most of his school. Tintoret alone shows something of the same tendency,—attributable, no doubt, to the late time at which he came into the method of his master. It Delacroix has none of the great serenity and cheerfulness of Titian, or the large and manly way of seeing of Veronese, he has an imaginative fervor and intensity we do not see in them, and of which Tintoret and Tiepolo only among the Venetians show any trace. Generations hence, Eugene Delacroix will loom larger above his contemporaries, now hiding him by proximity.