Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Delacroix Pilgrimage

Me outside the studio building.
I didn't go into the Louvre during my recent Paris trip. But I did visit the Musee Delacroix, which is in the house-garden-studio occupied by Eugene Delacroix at the end of his life, between 1857 and 1863. Even if you don't know Delacroix's work that well, or you only know him as the painter of the big historical canvas Liberty Leading the People, it's still worth visiting, for a variety of reasons:
  • You get to see some fine smaller paintings and statues.
  • You see sketches and sketchbooks that give you a glimpse of his working process.
  • You see lots of the personal objects he collected, particularly from his life-changing visits to north Africa.
  • You get to stand inside his studio.
  • And all this without the crush of crowds inside the Louvre.



From top: two of Delacroix's painting toolboxes,
including a palette; one of his sketchbooks
For someone like me, who feel in love with Delacroix's work shortly after I left art college in the 1990s, going to this museum was like a religious zealot going on a pilgrimage. My enthusiasm for his painting was boosted by discovering about the same time Delacroix's Journals, an almost daily diary that he kept at two periods of his life: as a young man in his twenties, leading up to his first visit to Morocco and Algiers in 1832; and as an older, highly successful, established artist. Things that stand out in my mind if I try to recall the Journals:
  • His detailed descriptions of his ideas about local colour and reflected colour, the idea (fact, actually) that most objects placed very closed to each other will pick up some of the colour of the object nearest to them. This seems obvious to us now, but Delacroix was considered a crackpot at the time for trying to paint that way.His unashamed hints of sleeping with his models.
  • His account of a fight between two horses in Algiers, a subject that he painted and returned to often throughout his career.
  • Attending concerts in Paris, his love of Beethoven and his bemusement at the music of Berlioz.
  • Visiting the composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, feeling moved to tears by his suffering at the end of Chopin's short life.
  • The disillusion with his own work that he felt towards the end, even as he was executing a huge commission to paint murals in the church of Saint Sulpice.


From top: inside the studio; my drawing of a painting in the studio;
my drawing from one of Delacroix's sketches, which I drew on the
museum's hand-out then glued into my sketchbook.
The studio is a  square structure in the garden behind the modest three story mansion that was Delacroix's home. How can I describe the feeling of walking those few short steps from house to studio, entering a high ceilinged room that is about 25 ft x 25 ft, with a glass roof and a wall of windows on one side? Then to stand there in front of one of those paintings of the fighting horses, and do a crayon sketch in the very space where the master himself painted, drew, erased, smoked, stood back, appraised, decided, started again or carried on? I was very moved, actually. And I think it wasn't just because of the physical presence of the artist all around you -- his paintings, his studio, his painting equipment. It's also having read those journals, that marvellously written testament to a particular sensibility existing at a particular time. Unlike many artists, even ones living today, you feel that you've listened to Delacroix's voice, that you've come closer to him as a human being. So even 160 years after his death, a visit to his studio, more so than many shrines, makes you feel that he's still alive in some ways.

N.B. A few years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I posted a long series of excerpts from Delacroix's Journals, which you can read by entering "journals of eugene delacroix" in the Search Box, in the right-hand column, above, of this blog.

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