Friday, October 19, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Paintings and Lithographs

After having seen in September the Met Museum's exhibit of Delacroix drawings (see my October 1 post) entitled Devotion to Drawing, I returned to last week to see the even larger exhibit of paintings and lithographs entitled simply Delacroix.  To call the show immense is an understatement; it stretches through multiple galleries and contains representative masterpieces from all phases of the artist's long career.  Only the large mural paintings, such as the iconic Liberty Leading the People, are missing as these were too fragile to travel from the Louvre.  The show was obviously intended to be the blockbuster exhibit of 2018, and it succeeds admirably in its aim.

There are over 150 works on view at the exhibit and their very abundance in so many different genres can bewilder the viewer.  As one proceeds through the galleries, however, certain themes and motifs become apparent.  The first and most apparent of these is of course Romanticism, the movement that had begun in the artist's youth and was still a powerful force in the arts at the time of his death in 1863.  One has only to look at Delcroix's youthful self-portrait as the character Ravenswood, from the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor, to see the influence Romanticism had upon him and how closely he identified with it.  It informed not only his choice of subjects, many of them taken from the works of legendary Romantic writers, but also his manner of painting in which he rejected Classical academic formulae in favor of broad sweeping brushstrokes and a dazzling array of colors.

A large number of works at the exhibit were inspired by Delacroix's journey to Morocco in 1832 as part of the official French diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Abd er-Rahman.  Though the mission itself was a failure and could not prevent the outbreak of the Franco-Moroccan War several years later, the locale did provide Delacroix with a wealth of imagery that was to form the basis of some of his most satisfying paintings.  Viewing works such as Street in Meknes and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, it can readily be seen that it was Delacroix rather than his rival Ingres or the academician Gérôme, who was the true father of Orientalism in the early nineteenth century.

So much attention has been given to Delacroix's Romanticism that the utter naturalism of his technique has often been overlooked.  The artist's absolute fidelity to nature can be seen most clearly in his depictions of animals.  There are several studies of tigers at this exhibit, and it's obvious the artist spent quite a bit of time observing these powerful animals.  The best is the 1830 Young Tiger Playing with its Mother in which the playfulness of the young cub is in sharp contrast to the stately bearing of the adult female.  Much more dramatic is the 1828 lithograph Wild Horse Felled by a Tiger that is absolutely devoid of sentimentality as it depicts the ruthless struggle of animals in the wild to survive.  Horses themselves were another favorite subject of Delacroix, and were often shown in battle scenes such as the action filled 1826 oil on canvas Combat of the Giaour and Hassan whose subject was taken from an 1813 poem by Byron.  It is an indoor scene of two horses alone, however, that is most stirring in its compact rendering of a life and death struggle.  The late 1860 oil on canvas Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable must certainly represent a scene Delacroix had actually witnessed almost thirty years before in Morocco and had never been able to put from his mind.

One cannot discuss the corrent show without mentioning Delacroix's seventeen lithograph illustrations for a new edition of Goethe's Faust.  Seen here together for the first time, they provide an illustrated narrative as compelling as Goethe's own.  In fact, upon seeing Plate No. 16 in which Faust and Mephistopheles gallop past the scaffolds on Walpurgis Night, Goethe is said to have remarked that Delacroix had thought out the scene better than had the poet himself.  There's more than a touch of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique here, though the musical work was not composed until several years after Delacroix had completed his series.  And Plate No. 15, in which Marguerite's ghost appears to Faust, is a truly Gothic vision whose macabre elements reveal Romanticism taken to its ultimate extent.  This plate, like the others displayed here, is not in its final state and has doodles to the side of the frame that were later removed in the final version.  The offhand drawings provide a fascinating insight into the artist's creative process.

The exhibit continues thtough January 6, 2019.

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