Dec 10th 2018

The Spirit of Romanticism: Eugène Delacroix at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.


The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum
of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary
revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who
embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to
experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt
and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we
learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.

Delacroix Christ in Garden of Olives The show commences with Delacroix’s first commission for a religious painting: a monumental
rendition of Christ in the Garden of Olives (1824-26). This ambitious work departs from
traditional approaches to the scene which would typically include a single angel – Delacroix
instead gives us three life-sized winged females hovering in mid-air. Christ rests his body on two
large rocks, propped up by his right arm; while with his face turned downwards in an attitude of dejection, he acknowledges the presence of the heavenly trio by raising his left hand to them, as if to say that he is beyond their powers of consolation. It is a picture that emphasizes Christ’s humanity, and already we see that strikingly vivid and sensuous use of color, for which Delacroix would be known.

From January to July 1832, Delacroix journeyed to North Africa, accompanying a diplomatic
mission to Morocco, followed by a visit to Algiers. The trip would prove to be a transformative
one for the painter, who by that time had already made a name for himself. It was, for Delacroix,
a journey back in time, a vibrant encounter with “living antiquity” as he put it, writing to a friend
while in Tangier: “Imagine… what it is to see lying in the sun, walking about the streets,
cobbling shoes, figures like Roman consuls, like Cato or Brutus…”

Delacroix Women of AlgiersOne of the many great works to emerge from his experience of North Africa is the Women of
Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), a large-scale painting that depicts three Algerian women
seated comfortably on the rugs that cover the floor of their private quarters. To the left, one
reclines casually on a pillow, gazing out towards the viewer and drawing us irresistibly into the picture. The other two incline their heads towards each other, apparently engaged in some quiet conversation; while to the far right a female black servant takes her leave.
The painting is especially notable for its use of flochetage – a technique that Delacroix
developed, which involves the application of complementary, closely related colors next to one
another, so that the colors mix in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. Such a technique
recognizes and utilizes the active role of the viewer in constituting the work of art as an aesthetic
object. This assertion of the constitutive activity of the mind – its vital participation in creating
the object – is in many ways the essential thread that runs through and unites Delacroix’s work,
and places him squarely at the forefront of that shift which would mark the advent of modern art.
It is no accident that Delacroix would have a profound influence on impressionists and post-
impressionists, from Renoir and Cézanne, to Seurat and Van Gogh. 

Delacroix HamletGiven his keen awareness of the active role of the mind it is not so surprising that we should find Delacroix returning repeatedly to the scene of Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (in 1835 and
again in 1839). In many ways, Hamlet is the quintessential modern subject, bearing witness in virtually everything he says and does to the infinite nature of consciousness. In the 1835 painting, a gravestone has literally become Prince Hamlet’s throne, and the graveyard his kingdom – in other words, his surroundings are a reflection of his melancholic and perhaps even suicidal thoughts.

Cleopatra and the Peasant (1838) revisits some of the themes we encounter in the scene of
Hamlet and Horatio. Delacroix does not depict the queen of Egypt at the moment when she is
dying, as baroque painters typically would have done (Guido Cagnacci provides such an example). Rather, Delacroix chooses instead to render the queen when she is contemplating her death, which would be accomplished through the poisonous asp – brought to her, in this case, by a burly peasant who has hidden the serpent in a basket of figs. Like Hamlet, Cleopatra could be said to be pondering the vanity and transience of worldly power, wealth and fame. The crucial point is that it is her state mind, not her death throes, which interests the painter.

The show includes two versions of the Death of Sardanapalus – an oil sketch from 1826-27,
which served as a study for one of the largest, most violent and controversial works of
Delacroix’s career. The other, from 1845-46, is a reduced replica of the massive 16-feet wide
Salon painting which was shown in 1826-27. The scene is one of unmitigated violence: during
the siege of his palace, Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria, had ordered the destruction of all
his possessions, including the women of his harem, and even the horses. We behold this murder
and mayhem unfolding all about the king, clothed in white robes, reclining impassively on a red-
draped bed, as the violence engulfs his lavish hall. Moments later, the suicidal king would take
his own life, rather than be vanquished by his enemies.

Death of Sardanapalus


One of the great highlights of the show is its inclusion of oils, watercolors, graphite sketches and
lithographs that record Delacroix’s fascination with animals – including especially lions, tigers,
and horses. Some of these works were produced during his visits to the menagerie at the Jardin
des Plantes in Paris, where he seems to have studied the features of the lion in particular. It is
particularly notable that Delacroix is sensitive to the way that animals and humans echo through
one another – observing in his journal, for example, how “the foreleg of the lion was like the
monstrous arm of a man.”

For Delacroix, human-animal intertwining was much more than just a pictorial theme. Look at
the Lion Hunt, for example, of which there are several versions; including a monumental
painting from 1855 which was partially destroyed in an 1870 fire (visitors will at least have a
chance to see the bottom half of the painting). Delacroix’s admiration for animals was immense,
as is clear from a painting such as Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother (1830):

Delacroix Young Tiger Playing with its Motherthe dignity of the mother’s pose is unmistakable and striking – even suggestive that, for Delacroix, the relation between humanity and animality is fundamentally not a hierarchical, but rather a lateral relation. Delacroix is often remembered, first and foremost, as a brilliant colorist – as a painter who championed the significance of vivid color and lively brushwork above that of line and delineation; in contrast to his great neoclassical contemporary and rival, Jean-Auguste-
Dominique Ingres. Van Gogh would observe that Delacroix’s work “speaks a symbolic language through color itself.” The Met’s retrospective has the merit however of showing how Delacroix
was also able to rein in his palette, to drastically limit his range of colors, and explore the
haunting effects of chiaroscuro in works that pay homage to the painter Caravaggio. The
Lamentation, or Christ at the Tomb (1847-48) demonstrates the way in which Delacroix could
paint with a deep sense of pathos, curtailing the light, while achieving a formal unity and balance
that was notoriously lacking in some of his earlier works. The only source of luminosity is the
body of Christ himself, while the mourners gathered around him seem to partake, in varying
degrees, of the light which his flesh itself exudes.

This exhibition has immense riches in store for the visitor who is able to take their time in each
gallery. Delacroix is an artist who produced works that are indeed a “feast for the eye”, which he
once stated is the primary merit of a painting – with patient and prolonged viewing however one
discovers that his art is as much a feast for the mind. “Painting is life itself,” he once wrote. More
than a genius of color, and imaginative narrative compositions, Delacroix’s greatness is
inseparable from his acute attention to the inner life, the interiority, of his subjects – be they
human or animal – and his ability to engage the viewer so that he becomes more than a passive
spectator. At his best, Delacroix’s work is able to touch us at the deepest level, to make us feel
the mystery at the heart of existence, and quicken our sense of the unity of living things.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example.