Eugène Delacroix (1798)
It was on this date, April 26, 1798, that “The last of the great artists of the Renaissance and the first modern,” as Baudelaire described him—Eugène Delacroix was born Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix at Charenton-Saint Maurice. Delacroix’s father died in 1805, his mother died in 1814, leaving Delacroix an orphan. Nevertheless, he studied classical art at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, and trained in the neoclassical style of another skeptical painter, Jacques-Louis David.
Some of his most powerful paintings were revolutionary, in both senses—he depicted his support for the Greek war for independence from Turks with his Massacre at Chios (1824) and his Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826)—and was summarily dismissed by the critics. However, one of his greatest paintings was the resolutely republican 1830 work, Liberty Leading the People to the Barricades. It featured the bare-breasted but curiously nipple-less Liberty, with musket in one hand and tri-color in the other, leading ragtag citizens to victory. But this was only to be expected of an assiduous reader of Diderot (who was charged with atheism) and Voltaire (a Deist). Indeed, Delacroix supported the French Revolution against the Catholic monarchy and was an ardent rationalist. Even so, Delacroix decorated the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement with a large Pietà in 1843 with the same élan he employed in painting the ceiling in the Galerie d’Apollon of the Louvre from 1848 to 1850.
“Eugène Delacroix was a curious mixture of skepticism, politeness, dandyism, willpower, cleverness, despotism, and finally, a kind of special goodness and tenderness that always accompanies genius,” said Baudelaire.* Still “passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible,” again in the words of Baudelaire, Eugène Delacroix died in Paris, a member of the French Academy, on 13 August 1863, at age 65. The great Romantic painter was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. His funeral was secular and a national event.
* Baudelaire, as quoted in Barthélémy Jobert’s Delacroix (1997, page 27).
Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.