Decoding Delacroix

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The Met Fifth Avenue stages the first full-scale retrospective in North America of the works of the 19th century French painter


  • A self-portrait by Eugène Delacroix, with the painter exuding calm and confidence, is among more than 150 oils, watercolors, drawings, prints and other objects on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 6. Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). “Self-Portrait in a Green Vest,” ca. 1837. Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 21 7/16 in. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN — Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michel Urtado

  • The size of this painting surprised visitors. It was as big as paintings of historical subjects. One critic wrote, “This unusual artist has never painted a man who looks like a man in the way his tiger looks like a tiger.” Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863). “Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother,”1830. Oil on canvas. 130 x 195 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

  • The iconic “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834) was considered by Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso to be “the touchstone of modern painting,” Louvre curator Sébastien Allard said at a preview. Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” 1834. Oil on canvas. 70 7/8 × 90 3/16 in. Musée du Louvre, Paris ©RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Franck Raux

  • Delacroix visited Morocco in 1832 and witnessed Arab horsemen engaged in military exercises, including calvary charges. Eugène Delacroix, “Collision of Arab Horsemen,” 1833/34. Oil on canvas.  31 11/16 × 39 9/16 in. Private collection. Photography by Alex Jamison

  • Delacroix drew inspiration from works of literature such as “Hamlet.” Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863). “Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard,” 1835. Oil on canvas. 39 × 31 11/16 in. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Städel Museum - ARTOTHEK

  • Delacroix was drawn to violent subjects, such as the story from Greek mythology about Medea, a mother who kills her sons to avenge her husband’s infidelity. Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863). “Medea About to Kill Her Children (Médée furieuse),”1838. Oil on canvas. 8 ft. 6 3/8 in. x 64 15/16 in. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille ©RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Stéphane Maréchalle

  • “Christ in the Garden of Olives” (1824-26) was newly cleaned for The Met’s show. It comes from Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church in Paris, where it hung on an upper wall. Now it can be seen up-close. Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), “Christ in the Garden of Olives (The Agony in the Garden).” Oil on canvas. 9 ft., 1 7/16 in. × 11 ft. 3 13/16 in. Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, COARC, Paris © Jean-Marc Moser / COARC / Roger Viollet

  • “Murder of the Bishop of Liège” is notable for its “movement and dramatic use of light,” says The Met’s curator Asher Miller. Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863). “The Murder of the Bishop of Liège,” 1829. Oil on canvas. 35 13/16 × 45 11/16 in. Musée du Louvre, Paris. ©RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) was one of the most famous Romantic painters of his day. He's a giant of Western art. But while he may be a household name, “he continues to be little understood,” Asher Miller, associate curator at The Met, said at a preview of the new mega-show in 12 galleries on the second floor.

A collaboration of The Met and the Louvre, which loaned 17 paintings, including the iconic harem scene “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834), the exhibit showcases more than 150 oils, watercolors, drawings, prints, diaries and notebooks from dozens of lenders in Europe and North America.

The poet-critic Baudelaire called Delacroix “a volcanic crater artistically concealed beneath bouquets of flowers,” alluding to his polished yet emotionally charged works that anticipated the moderns — Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh, who said about his predecessor, “That bastard. He's really good.”

As The Met's new director, Max Hollein, put it: “Delacroix is one of the great colorists in art history. If you look carefully at the brushstrokes ... they make the paintings vibrate in a very special way. It's this radiant palette and unconventional, untraditional raw treatment [of subjects] that astonish us still today and certainly astonished people at the time.”

As a 19th century Romantic who looked up to Rubens and the Venetian painters, Delacroix created works imbued with feeling and passion, color and movement. The art establishment considered him out of control, but he nonetheless won acceptance by the state-sponsored Salon, which hosted shows of contemporary artists at the Louvre and made him famous with the exhibition of “The Barque of Dante” (1822) and other works when he was a young man.

Delacroix's ambition is writ large here. He thought big and painted big, populating broad canvases with subjects drawn from literature, Greek mythology, religion, history, politics, travel and the animal kingdom.

The subjects had gravitas, from the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s and Christ's Passion and Crucifixion to Medea's revenge on her sons and the lions and other big cats at a Paris menagerie. (See “Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi,” 1826; “Christ in the Garden of Olives,” 1824-26; “Medea About to Kill Her Children,” 1838; and “Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother,” 1830.) In “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1845-46), a smaller version of the notorious Salon painting from 1827-28, the Assyrian king chooses suicide over surrender to his foes.

Delacroix used live models, and later in this career relied on memory, to create compositions brimming with figures and dramatic tension. He not only didn't shy away from conflict, he met it head-on.

There is a room devoted to works from his trip to North Africa in 1832. After the French invasion of Algeria, he accompanied a diplomatic mission to Morocco and visited Tangier, Meknes and Algiers. The experience provided the grist for celebrated genre works — “Street in Meknes,” from 1832, among them — but also a string of action paintings that portray Arab fighters on horseback engaged in military exercises. They lead calvary charges and fire their weapons; horses rear up in reaction to the gunfire; and soldiers and animals collide. It's messy and chaotic.

But scenes of violence and mayhem are just one facet of the master's oeuvre, which includes more than 800 paintings and 8,000 drawings executed over four decades. Delacroix was as adept at producing battle tableaux as he was at painting flowers or portraits. The Met's “Basket of Flowers” (1848-49) underwent a thorough restoration for the removal of ugly varnish and now shines brilliantly.

As Miller said: “In the 50 years it has been here, it has been a decidedly unloved painting, until the past year-and-a-half [when] Charlotte Hale and her Department of Paintings Conservation brought it back to life. It's the first time you will see the painting as Delacroix's contemporaries saw it.”

One of the show's many wonders is a portrait of the artist himself, “Self-Portrait in a Green Vest” (ca. 1937), completed when he was almost 40. From a young age, Delacroix aspired to become an artist. “His ambition was to achieve the ideal of the artist as the equal of statesmen, scientists ... poets,” the curator said. The picture here, with the painter exuding calm and confidence, signals he's “made it.”

As Miller wrote in an email about the dynamo's versatility: “Delacroix's genius was complex and varied. There's no single masterpiece that encompasses all the rest. Every visitor to the exhibition has to find his or her own way in — and that might take more than one visit. Compare the surging, roiling crowds reacting to the action in 'Murder of the Bishop of Liège,' with its movement and dramatic use of light, to the monumental, placid 'Women of Algiers,' with its far more developed sense of surface and color. Or take the two versions of 'The Death of Sardanapalus,' on the one hand, and 'Medea About to Kill Her Children,' on the other: How does one account for the shift in the way Delacroix depicts reason — or the absence of reason?”

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