Monday, October 1, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Drawings

There are currently two major exhibits at the Met Museum featuring the work of the nineteenth century French artist Eugène Delacroix.  The most recent to have opened, entitled simply Delacroix, features the paintings and has drawn all the attention; but it was the other, a display of the artist's drawings entitled Devotion to Drawing, that I decided to visit first.  Not only did many of the drawings serve as studies for the paintings, but the genre itself provides much better insight into the development of any artist's style as it's stripped it down to its essentials.

The exhibit is contained in three galleries, the first of which is labeled "Formation Through Drawing."  The work here is generally from the earliest part of Delacroix's career when he was still learning technique.  Like any student of the École des Beaux-Arts, he began his studies by copying famous works and by drawing the live model.  In Delacroix's case, however, this basic approach did not end when he ceased to be a student.  All through his career he always made time to copy works he found of interest, perhaps because in so doing he gained insight into the vision of the artists who provided him inspiration.  It's worth noting that in his choice of sources Delacroix did not use models from classical antiquity as was the custom in the nineteenth century but instead favored those of Renaissance artists, even less famous painters such as Paolo Veronese from whose Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian Delacroix copied several figures in an 1820's pen and brown ink drawing, though not that of Saint Sebastian himself.  Another example would be a pen and brown ink drawing from the same period in which Delacroix faithfully copied Raphael's Combat of Nude Men.  But it was not only artists from the past who interested Delacroix.  He also copied figures intended as studies for The Raft of Medusa, itself derived from a work by Rubens, by his good friend and mentor Théodore Gericault.  So great was Gericault's influence on the younger artist that the authorship of one of the drawings on display at this exhibit cannot be definitively determined.

As for the "live" models that Delacroix sketched, the most interesting were actually cadavers.  While viewing these drawings, one is reminded irresistably of similar anatomical studies in Leonardo's notebooks.  The same precise delineation of musculature can also be seen in studies of living models in such pieces as The Backs of Two Seated Figures, a red and black chalk drawing that shows perfectly the play of muscles involved in the simple act of sitting.

The second gallery is labeled "The Application of Drawing" and demonstrates the manner in which Delacroix's original drawings were used as preparation for their appeanance in other media.  The most noteworthy examples are products of the artist's visit to Morocco in 1832 as part of the French diplomatic delegation.  It was the perfect destination for an artist whose work was so imbued with the spirit of Romanticism, and Delacroix's emostionally charged depictions of this exotic locale did much to promote the fashion of Orientalism in European art.  Still, Delacroix was meticulous in recording Near Eastern dress and manners in his quest for authenticity.  In spite of this, the artist did not hesitate to adapt his vision when it came time to prepare his work for reproduction in other media.  This can clearly be seen in a series of drawings depicting the Sultan Abd er-Rahman on horseback.  In the first, a rough brush and brown ink completed in situ in 1832, the sultan is seen surrounded by his advisors while meeting with the French envoy Charles-Edgar de Mornay.  There is almost no detail here, only the barest outlines of the figures.  In a much more studied 1845 graphite drawing Delacroix removed the figure of the French envoy, the failure of whose mission had led directly the Franco-Morrocan War twelve years later.  This drawing, a preparatory study for a large painting, is far more detailed than the 1832 version even if devoid of the original's political significance.  Finally, an 1856 graphite drawing of the same scene done in preparation for yet another painting again makes major changes, here replacing the sultan's advisors with a group of servants tending to his comfort.  The process of historical revision, here laid out so clearly before the viewer, is fascinating in itself.

Though one does not normally think of Delacroix as an illustrator, there were several literary works that had a profound influence on his Romantic nature.  A lithograph from the period 1836-1842  entitled The Wounded Goetz Taken in by the Gypsies is one of seven that illustrate scenes from Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen.  In style it constrasts sharply with a blue and brown wash over graphite from 1836 that depicts the same subject.  Another great literary influence was Shakespeare, and there are several drawings here illustrating various scenes from Hamlet.  For pure action, though, nothing can compare with The Giaour on Horseback, an 1824-1826 drawing that depicts a violent encounter taken from Byron's 1813 poem The Giaour whose Middle Eastern setting may have furnished the principal attraction for Delacroix.

The third and final gallery, labeled "Medium and Invention," contains some of the artist's finest drawings. While Delacroix usually worked with simple graphite, the drawings in this section demonstrate his mastery of other media including watercolor, not then in common use among French artists.  A splendid example, one that shows Delacroix's fine eye for color, is Three Arab Horsemen at an Encampment (1832-1837) in which watercolor has been applied over graphite to stunning effect.  Even more impressive are two nearly monochromatic washes from 1829-1831, A Tomb and Studies of Windows in the Church of Valmont Abbey and Interior of the Church of Valmont Abbey.  The command Delacroix here exhibits over the difficult wash process is extraordinary, and these are to me the finest works in the show.

The exhibit continues through November 12, 2018.

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