As I’ve been re-reading and posting from Van Gogh’s letters, I’ve been struck by how often he mentioned the name of the French painter Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix, born in 1798, died in 1863 when Van Gogh was ten. If we look at Delacroix’s first paintings from the 1820s, it appears that they couldn’t be more different from Van Gogh and his contemporaries:
Yet many of the Impressionists claimed Delacroix as a pioneer in their method of eliminating what painters refer to as ‘half-tones’, and using small strokes of pure unmixed colour. Delacroix also kept a journal, which he wrote in almost daily for the last 16 years of his life. There is a big contrast in personalities between the Delacroix of the journal and the Van Gogh of the letters, so I thought it would be interesting to start posting entries from the older painter’s writings too.
Delacroix was a success from the beginning. You might say he was born to it, being the son of a military man who fought both for the French revolution and then in Napoleon’s army. Delacroix was an aristocrat by temperament, even though he was initially considered to be ultra-modern and revolutionary in his painting. While Van Gogh’s letters are full of a kind of pining for an imminent future, Delacroix hated democratic politics and thought that the common people should know their place. He craved worldly success in the form of commissions for painting frescoes in public buildings, but even as he achieved this, many of his journal entries complain about boredom and ennui, the burden of his social obligations, and the tiresomeness of the conversation at the fashionable dinners he nevertheless always attended. Compare this with the tone of Van Gogh’s letters: at worst, there is a little too much of the ‘O joy!’ enthusiasm of the gauche autodidact, but at best they are the record of a deeply generous and loving spirit. On the other hand, Delacroix had many fascinating things to say about the craft of painting, and given how few of the truly great classical painters left behind any written record of their education and technique, Delacroix’s journal can be seen almost as a manual for the accumulated craft-wisdom of almost 400 years of easel painting.
Here, then, is my first excerpt from the Journal of Eugene Delacroix, dated January 27, 1847:
“But luckily, fragile though it is, painting (and failing this, engraving) does preserve the evidence for the verdict of posterity, and thus allows the reputation of an artist of real superiority to be reassessed, even though he may have been underestimated by the shallow judgement of contemporary public opinion, which is always attracted by flashiness and a veneer of truth.”
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