Eugène Delacroix studied under history painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833) and at the École des Beaux-Arts, though he did not succeed in competitions there. He soon befriended romantic painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and exhibited at his first Salon in 1822 his powerful, moody The Barque of Dante (Musée du Louvre, Paris). In the next Salon, inspired by the recent events in the Greeks' struggle for independence against the Turks, Delacroix showed Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (Musée du Louvre, Paris), a painting whose anti-academic composition, free brushwork, and brilliant color caused hostile critics to accuse the artist of the "massacre of painting." Nevertheless, he was awarded a Salon medal and the state purchased the picture.
After the early death of Géricault, the young artist became the titular head of the French romantic artistic movement, as much for his innovative technique as his new themes. Widely read and an Anglophile, Delacroix drew frequently from British literature, especially Shakespeare, Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. He also developed a strong interest in orientalist subjects, spurred by the five-month trip to Morocco and southern Spain he took in 1832. He stressed the creative and imaginative elements of painting and opposed the academy for its rote learning and the bourgeoisie for its overly materialistic interests. Delacroix discussed his aesthetic ideas with an ever-expanding circle of writers, musicians, and artists that he frequented, including pianist-composer Frédéric Chopin and writer George Sand. But ultimately he developed a personal conception of beauty that could only be expressed in an individualized manner.
Recent studies have revised the long-standing interpretation of Delacroix as a radical, anticlassical, misunderstood, and unsupported genius. He greatly admired antiquity and the classical authors but insisted on avoiding the narrow or didactic view of them offered by the academies. He may not have emulated classical statuary as sources for his figures, but he did often represent heroic nude figures. For all his insistence on invention, Delacroix retained some sense of documentary reconstruction, for he made numerous studies of costumes and weapons and did other kinds of research before tackling certain subjects. From the beginning and throughout his career, Delacroix received many religious and historical painting commissions, from provincial churches to government buildings, under different rulers and even political systems. His allegorical work Liberty Leading the Barricades (1830-31, Musée du Louvre, Paris) represents the only painting in which the artist referred to a contemporary political event in France, the revolution that overthrew Louis XVIII and the Bourbon monarchy. This, too, was purchased by the state. In 1833 he was asked to decorate with allegories the Salon du Roi of the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the deputies. Their success brought him additional commissions in the same building, such as the library (1838), and then the library in the senate (1841-46), housed in the Palais du Luxembourg. His historical, religious, and allegorical paintings were often criticized by more conservative critics for a lack of decorum, anatomical distortions, too-bright or unnaturalistic color, and free brushwork, but he continued to find work because he was one of the few artists who continued to explore these "elevated" genres and had a sure sense of the decorative.
Extremely prolific, Delacroix accomplished a major mural commission for the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris (1850-63) the year before his death. He was even elected in 1857 to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but younger artists consistently regarded him as antiestablishment and a paragon of artistic experimentation. He wrote extensively on art and aesthetic issues, both in his private diaries and for published journals.1
1. Recently, scholars such as Michele Hannoosh, Painting and the Journal of Eugene Delacroix (Princeton, 1995), have examined the content and style of Delacroix's texts for what they might tell about Delacroix the writer as well as the work and creative process of Delacroix the artist.
Delacroix was one of the most innovative and successful painters of the first half of the 19th century. He is known as the last great history painter and his art is the ideal of Romanticism in the visual arts. Delacroix's career is marked by the paradox between the revolutionary and the conventional. He was in conflict with the artist Ingres and was seen as the leading figure of the French Romantic movement; he was famed for undermining the tradition of painting established by David, yet he benefited from official patronage from the beginning of the Restoration (1814-1830) until the Second Empire (1852-1870).