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In Paris, a major Delacroix exhibition that continues to explore his genius

Eugène Delacroix’s “July 28, 1830: Liberty Leading the People.” (Michel Urtado/Musee du Louvre, Paris/Copyright RMN-Grand Palais)
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PARIS — Not since 1963 has the Louvre mounted a major retrospective devoted to Eugène Delacroix, the great painter of the Romantic age whose works the museum holds in almost obscene abundance. The Louvre owns most of the artist’s explosive early masterpieces, paintings on a grand, immersive scale that are too big, too precious and too essential to the Louvre’s identity to move. So no other institution can really do him justice.

Even so, some in France mutter: Another Delacroix exhibition? Isn’t he already too familiar, the maker of such icons as “Liberty Leading the People,” which recall a bygone France full of contradiction, hypocrisy and self-conceit? But by far the majority say it’s about time. So this exhibition, with some 180 of his works on view and a focus on the artist’s later and lesser-known paintings, is a genuine event.

Delacroix was born in 1798, into an age of political, economic and artistic turmoil, the son of a prominent government official who moved in high-bourgeois circles. But he was orphaned, his family lost its wealth and Napoleon’s empire collapsed, so by the time Delacroix was a young man, he was forced to be intellectually and socially entrepreneurial. He made his splash early, in the 1820s, with major pieces for the great Paris Salon, the prestigious art exhibitions that were a fixture of French creative and political life through the 18th and most of the 19th centuries. For the Salon of 1822, he painted “The Barque of Dante,” a terrifying vision of the great Florentine poet on a small, tempest-tossed boat, besieged by the damned in hell. For the Salon of 1824, he came back with “The Massacre at Chios,” an enormous canvas almost 14 feet tall that depicts an Ottoman slaughter of Greek civilians, in which the central protagonists emerge from a flat, almost theatrical backdrop with the preternatural presence of a 3-D film.

By the time he was in his 30s, he had made his mark in almost every genre of painting. He had scandalized the public with his magnificently lurid “The Death of Sardanapalus,” the Assyrian king who took with him to his death all his concubines, slaves and riches; and he endeared himself to new audiences with “Liberty Leading the People,” painted in 1830 after the revolution that toppled the reactionary Charles X, brother of Louis XVI, who lost his head in an earlier upheaval. He also turned his hand to the more popular form of lithography and produced exquisitely moody illustrations of Shakespeare and Goethe, authors who remained central to his imagination.

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Read through the reviews and analysis of the Louvre’s previous Delacroix exhibition more than half a century ago, and it seems both France and the art world still belonged to the 19th century. Much of the commentary was about the nature of Delacroix’s “genius,” the fraught question of his status as a romantic painter, and the curious dissonance between his work — visceral, seemingly spontaneous and irruptive with emotion — and his life, which was not marked by the usual follies expected of a young romantic. Delacroix loved Mozart, not Berlioz; read widely in classical literature and had little enthusiasm for contemporary writers such as Victor Hugo; and despite liberal views, he remained wary of the political mob and the volatile streets of Paris that produced precisely the event he memorialized in “Liberty Leading the People.” His paintings, especially his early work, were full of thick, kinetic eddies of paint, but as the many sketches and studies included in this exhibition demonstrate, they were meticulously planned, refined and generally improved through rigorous gestation.

The debates in 1963 about romanticism and classicism are old-fashioned now and have mostly disappeared from the discourse. This exhibition introduces the painter with a small painting of “Tasso in the Madhouse,” one of the great tropes of romanticism, but the categories bleed into one another and often dissolve the more they are studied. Sebastien Allard, director of the Department of Paintings at the Louvre and one of the exhibition’s curators, says, “What is needed now is a more panoramic view” of the painter, beyond the old “isms” of the past. So the show is structured around central chapters in the painter’s career, his heroic youthful works, his interest in narratives from Byron, Goethe and Shakespeare, his trips to England and Morocco, his mural paintings for the Louvre and other grand edifices of Paris, his religious imagery, his lifelong reconsideration of and variations on past work, and his final paintings made before his death in 1863. If the previous big Louvre show prompted reflexive thoughts about which categories Delacroix belongs to, this one aims at making his career seem too capacious and surprising to fit any categories at all.

The twists and turns are indeed exhilarating. In 1832, he made an extended visit to Morocco and brought back notebooks stuffed with sketches and observations to which he returned throughout his life to create works such as “The Women of Algiers in their Apartment,” a darkly lit interior scene of sumptuously dressed women gathered around a water pipe, conspicuously not noticing the observer who has intruded on their private space. The 1833-34 canvas was controversial for its lack of everything that had defined the painter’s earlier work — violence, action, struggle and death. Today, it remains controversial as one of the central icons of Orientalism, the Western fascination with the exotic other, often a colonized, exploited and violated figure.

For the Salon of 1849, the 50-year-old painter produced floral compositions, breaking with the turbid and earthy colors of his earlier work to produce baroque effusions of brilliant blues, reds and greens in arrangements that prefigured the dissolution of conventional forms pursued by the impressionists. An 1848 bouquet made in watercolor seems to float in space, pushing to the edge of the paper on which it is painted, its whorl of flowers untethered to their stems or a vase or any of the markers of a conventional still life. He also produced religious paintings — of Christ on the cross and anecdotes from the life of Mary — more in the spirit of the agonized piety of a Bach passion than the supercharged, theatrical emotionalism of his romantic contemporaries.

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So the exhibition presents the question: Is there a thread to connect all of this? Is there a comprehensible Delacroix behind the art he produced? And on reflection, it offers this answer: Delacroix made have been an extraordinary figure — perhaps the greatest figure of his age — but he was also, in many ways, exceptionally normal. He outlived his youth, as many of us do. He evolved and explored and reformed himself, but he felt no need to amputate any part of his past self as he matured. He grew reflective as he got older, but while his fiery vision steadied to a warm glow, it never flickered out.

Delacroix isn’t just one of the most familiar figures of the 19th century, he is also one of the best documented. He produced an enormously literate and entertaining journal, and letters, and opined freely and insightfully on art. He was scrutinized, analyzed, glorified and finally eulogized by the greatest writers and poets of his day, including Baudelaire and Stendhal. Delacroix studies have been a vigorous industry for more than a century. An exhibition that opened in Minneapolis three years ago exploring Delacroix’s influence on modern masters underscored how he is being reconsidered today.

But tug at even a single thread in this exhibition and there is clearly more work to be done. His Orientalist paintings present perhaps the most complicated problem, given the emergence of France as a multiethnic state facing periodic threats from its nationalist and nativist forces. Yet Delacroix’s Orientalism is complex and ambiguous. His Arab men and women may be exotic and “other,” but they are not caricatures and the painter doesn’t underscore their lack of agency in his depictions. Delacroix’s Orientalism also displaces the powerful and vestigial thirst for violence onto other people, especially the Turks. That displacement may be hypocritical, and deeply unfair; but one senses behind it the desire to exorcise the violence of an earlier age.

In his early works, including cinematic orgies such as “The Death of Sardanapalus,” one senses the nostalgia of a young man who arrived on the scene just as the greatest event in modern Europe was finished. Napoleon may have conquered and slaughtered, but he also electrified, and now that chapter was over. And so there is a curious similarity in his image of Sardanapalus maniacally watching the destruction of his wealth and world to one of the smallest and intimate works in the show, a water color study of a messy, unmade bed. From the passions, sexual or violent, we must all awake and move on. Orientalism signifies the French desire to do just that, even as it created new forms of violence directed outward.

The exhibition will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in September, but without many of the major, large-scale early works from the Louvre’s collection. Viewers will be able to assess the later, generally smaller works of Delacroix, and his drawings, water colors and lithographs. But only in Paris can you see the full glory of his career, including his vivid murals. And without the juxtaposition of those works with the first gallery of this exhibition, in which hang five of his most monumental paintings, can you fully appreciate his crowning achievement: As an artist he gathered, and grew, and never gave away anything from his past to the cynicism of old age.

Delacroix: 1798-1863 is on view at the Louvre in Paris through July 23. For information, visit