Art In History Art Blog
So at last I am getting to Delacroix, as promised several weeks ago. Though in fact, I am going to feature Delacroix and his great rival Ingres, inheritor of the Mantle of David as the defender of classical orthodoxy. As I've said before, I think the art of this period is vastly enriched by its context in history, both social and aesthetic.
I've called the period the "second French revolution"; in fact, in Paris at least, it was a period of continual upheaval. The Parisian populace took to the streets at the least provocation, tearing up the coblestones and bringing the city to a halt. Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the people" marks the major uprising in 1830. In fact, so ungovernable was the city that in mid century Housmann was commissioned to build the great Parisian avenues...primarily to allow the movement of cavalry within the city. Art for war's sake.
But if the first revolution was primarily social and political, the second was primarily artistic. Delacroix was revolting against the strictures of the French Academy, led by Ingres, for whom the classical tradition was a religion. In fact, his hatred of Delacroix took on biblical overtones: he claimed he could smell fire and brimstone when Delacroix was in the room.
Ingres himself was no slouch. He was an exquisite draughtsman, with a subtlety and refinement that has never been surpassed. His portrait of Mme. D'Haussonville is an excellent example of his work: drawing is dominant, color is wonderful but always subservient to the form. If we compare this to the portrait of Chopin by Delacroix, the contrast is total: line plays no part, and refinement is replaced by directness and power.
Perhaps the best way to understand the vast gulf between the approach of the two rivals is through their drawings. When we look at Ingres' drawings, we see him at his best. The sensitivity of his line is astounding, tone is barely indicated andthen only through hatching, and the overall effect is of an elegance and ploish that is unmatched. I am comparing this to a sketch from Delacroix' Morrocan sketchbooks; combined with his written journals, they give us as complete a sense of the artist as we are ever blessed with. His sketches employ line very broadly, and then only to set the context for his color notes. It is clearly color which is his main interest.
If we compare two major presentation works by the two, the differences are again stark. Ingres' "Jupiter and Thetis" is a bluepprint for generations of academic art to follow, with its overwrought drawing, to the point of affectation, combined with mastery of the human figure. Delacroix's "Death of Sardanapalus" is hot as opposed to cool. The subject is violent and chaotic, the riot of colors is overwhelming. We can only respond viscerally to such a work.
For the history of art, there is something more far-reaching going on as well. Delacroix was a student of color, and began for the first time juxtaposing complementary colors for maximum effect: red with green, blue with orange, yellow with purple. All three combinations can be found in "Sardanapalus", set side-by-side to heighten the colors' impact.
I can't resist comparing two figure paintings by the two rivals. Each is titled "Odalisque"; the subject is romatic, but Ingres was not immune to any opportunity to show the female form. Delacroix would have been put off by the overrefinement of the Ingres figure, while Ingres wkould have been horrified by the total disregard for drawing and anatomy in the Delacroix. Ironically, Ingres' anatomy is delibrately and radically distorted for sinuous effect.
My favorite Ingres (portraits aside) is the "Bather of Valpincon", with all the best of his traits wrought to exquisite perfection. He is a noble champion for the neo-classical tradition. As for Delacroix, I will end with one of his many "Lion Hunt" paintings, an homage to Rubens and a perfect expression of his romantic colorist creed.