Delacroix and His Forgotten World: The Origins of Romantic Painting, by Margaret Mac Namidhe, IB Tauris, 256 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1780769370
In the first chapter of her book Margaret Mac Namidhe cites fellow art historian Beth Wright’s description of Eugène Delacroix as an “illustrious rather than a well-known figure”. Many of those who profoundly admire Delacroix’s work do so on the basis of their familiarity with paintings such as Liberty Storming the Barricades, The Death of Sardanapalus, The Women of Algiers, a number of paintings of animals in frenzied action and portraits of friends such as Chopin, George Sand and Paganini. Few people take the trouble to trek around the great public spaces that hold his huge mural schemes. And since the latter do not reproduce well in books, knowledge of the artist’s work is limited for the general art lover, even if his reputation is not disputed.
Mac Namidhe has no intention of challenging that deficit. Nor is she out to win friends and influence people to admire Delacroix’s work. She barely mentions such paintings as Liberty and the mural schemes, and ignores the portraits. Instead she is quite determined that if we do go looking at the less studied works, some of which she courageously describes as “overwrought” and even “listless” we will do so informed by an in-depth account of the critical milieu that dominated French painting at a formative moment in the artist’s career. That entails a more nuanced look at French Romanticism than that usually proffered.
Although centred on Delacroix, and on one painting in particular, the Massacre at Chios (1824), the book is really about the discourses of interpretation, tradition and practice that dominated critical writing about the Salon of 1824 at which the painting received its first public showing. Art history has always been interested in the vagaries of taste. Mac Namidhe does the discipline a tremendous service by looking at this through the prism of a single painting, which she subjects to intense scrutiny, while comparing it and its critical reception with that its peers received in the same Salon. She asks why Xavier Sigalon was such a favourite with the critics in 1824 but has become virtually unknown since then, why aspects of Léon Cogniet’s Massacre of the Innocents were praised for revealing the influence of Jacques-Louis David yet other artists were ridiculed for the same quality and why Delacroix’s picture met with such outright hostility from those very critics who reluctantly admired certain passages of it. Delacroix’s fellow artist Antoine-Jean Gros referred to it as a “massacre of art”, yet it was bought by the state for the Luxembourg Palace. Mac Namidhe looks at conflicting attitudes to David – especially attitudes to the earlier and later phases of his career, through previously unstudied writing, including a novella by David’s conservative former student, biographer and critic of the 1824 Salon, Étienne-Jean Delécluze. The more radical writer Stendhal (described by Delacroix in his Journal on January 24th, 1824, when he was working on Massacre at Chios, as “insolent, supercilious when he is right and sometimes nonsensical”) had dismissed the late work of David as devoid of feeling, yet was totally opposed to Delacroix’s emotionally charged Massacre.
The critics who covered the 1824 Salon, Delécluze, Gros, Auguste Chauvin, Adolphe Thiers and even Stendhal, writing from very different perspectives, were still under the powerful influence of Aristotelian aesthetics, a keystone of academic art. As Mac Namidhe argues convincingly, they looked at the paintings of the 1820s expecting to find there the unities of time, space and action that the academy, and even its critics, saw as essential for all great art. The Massacre at Chios defied this demand, stressing the passive suffering of the Greeks who are about to be slain by the conquering Turkish troops in place of heroic action, leaving a void at its centre, where the dramatic focus should be in academic art, and refusing to provide the precision and clarity of detail or evenness of paint application that convention demanded.
Mac Namidhe offers a close reading of contemporary writing and comparisons with paintings deemed more successful than Delacroix’s by artists now long forgotten, such as Michel Martin Drolling, Jean-Victor Schnetz, Abel De Pujol and especially Sigalon’s Locusta, Giving to Narcissus a Poison destined for Britannicus, tests it on a young slave (1824) praised by Thiers as “the one thing at the Salon that everyone agreed on”. Through her mix of contemporary writing and her examination of attitudes to the heroic, to gesture, brushwork and colour, and to the unity of focal point and anecdotal detail she reveals how critics of the day responded. Mac Namidhe’s scholarship points up the extent to which they depend on established norms – in Delacroix’s case, how well he fitted into a framework established by early David (good) late David (bad) or Théodore Géricault (good for some, bad for others).
The intensity of her focus on this ‑ much of it new ‑ material provides rich rewards. This writer though would have liked a wider view of the artist’s career, to include his own writing and the other factors that impacted on his work, the Byronic influence, his own extraordinary understanding of colour, and his wide knowledge of Venetian Renaissance painting. Delacroix is traditionally seen as a pivotal figure in the development of French Romanticism. Mac Namidhe shows how contested and nuanced the origins of that movement were, but no matter how much we know about reception in 1824, it is also important that later artists like Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh responded directly and positively to his use of colour and form. Above all we need to know the man himself. Victor Hugo, who did know him, wrote: “Delacroix, reactionary in his ideas, romantic in his talent, was in contradiction with his own works … I told him that his opinions were diametrically opposed to his painting: he agreed with me, and said his painting was a turpitude.” (Adèle Hugo, Journal, March 27th, 1856, cited in TJ Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois, 1982 edition) Let’s hope that Mac Namidhe will go on to tackle that bigger book on Delacroix. No one is better placed to do it. An important aside to this, is that few Irish art historians tackle important international subjects. Mac Namidhe shows that it is possible to do so ‑ and to excel.
Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V, Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.