London Culture | Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art

Lion Hunt, Eugène Delacroix

‘We could go to the Delacroix,’ I said, a little doubtfully. I was discussing with one of my best friends which exhibition we should see, and although the National Gallery is a good location for both of us, I hesitated over suggesting their current Delacroix exhibition. I’d already been to see it with my Mum, and, although I’d enjoyed it, it was the paintings by the artists inspired by Delacroix that I’d appreciated the most: the works of Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse & co. that hung alongside those of the French master. I explained some of this to my friend. He wanted to know what I hadn’t liked so much about Delacroix’s paintings.

Olive Trees, Vincent van Gogh

I thought about this, and realised it was the subject matter. Mythological and religious paintings have never held a great deal of fascination for me, and Delacroix painted plenty of both. My friend didn’t seem put off by this though; in fact he sounded interested – ‘let’s go.’

You know how people have different gallery speeds? I like to whip around an exhibition, gaining an overall impression, a feel of it, before I might go back and take in some of my favourite paintings more slowly. This is partly why I love having gallery memberships: I get to return to exhibitions numerous times, for a quick dip of my toes into the world of art, taking in something new each visit, without worrying about the ticket expense. My nightmare is seeing an exhibition with someone who says ‘yes’ to the audioguide, laboriously pressing play in front of each and every picture. I’m afraid my short attention span is a character flaw I can’t change. Luckily for me, my Mum enjoys exhibitions at exactly the same pace as I do: we are often drawn towards the same pictures, we move at the same pace.

huge amount of specular highlights in the paintingChrist Asleep During the Tempest, Eugène Delacroix

With my friend, it’s different. He’s much more methodical than I am; his attention is unwavering. He doesn’t say yes to the audioguide, but he likes to study what he sees, discussing paintings as we go, sharing opinions. I thought about the religious paintings again and heaved an inward sigh. But then I remembered the Renoirs, the Cezannes, the two fabulous Matisse paintings that I’d never seen before and perked up. It would be fun, and perhaps I’d even notice something about the Delacroix works that would make me appreciate them more than the first time around.

3af70b7639240b513346e840fc55cc7aLa Japonaise: Woman Beside the Water, Henri Matisse

Despite our somewhat differing gallery pace, there’s a reason my friend and I have a long history of seeing exhibitions together. For one thing, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other’s opinion and both enjoy the different perspectives we bring to what we see. I’ve always felt lucky to make male friends who appreciate culture (as well as football) and don’t need a lot of arm twisting to come along to exhibitions, theatre, opera and ballet, and this friend is no exception. He’d happily accompanied me to the Vogue 100, Painting the Modern Garden and Charlotte Bronte exhibitions earlier in the year and had enjoyed all of them. Yay for disproving gender stereotypes! But back to the Delacroix….

Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène_Delacroix,_French_-_The_Death_of_Sardanapalus_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe Death of Sardanapalus, Eugène Delacroix

‘Look at the colours!’ my friend exclaimed excitedly, peering closely at each Delacroix painting. I looked, and suddenly I began to see what he meant; what there was to get excited about. Delacroix is described as a leader of Romanticism, bringing an exuberance and excitement to his paintings that contrasted starkly to the stilted, meticulous style of early 19th Century French art. Delacroix had a huge influence on numerous great artists that followed him, and one of his legacies was his vibrant and innovative use of colour. Cezanne described Delacroix’s palette as ‘the most beautiful in France.’ Delacroix saw all of a picture as an opportunity for colour, even the shadows, and his careful mixing and clever use of primary and secondary colours for dramatic effect added an incredible depth to his paintings.

A Moroccan mounting his Horse, 1854A Moroccan Mounting His Horse, Eugène Delacroix 

Certain colours are frequently repeated and paired together in his paintings, particularly yellow, red and a kind of turquoise-blue. Orange, purple or green often add an unexpected glow to his canvas. We had fun noticing this as we studied the artworks, searching for his particular colour patterns and examining how other artists payed homage to his technique.

Vassily Kandinsky; Study for Improvisation V; 67.34.2Study for Improvisation V, Vassily Kandinsky

As I’m sure is clear from this blog, I adore colour. Sometimes, when I read yet another instagram guide that suggests restricting your photographs to a kinfolk-like colour palette (lots and lots of white, plenty of artfully placed cacti, blossoms and pastel coloured scraps of material), I feel a little depressed. I would get so bored. I appreciate it’s a tried and tested way to grow your account following, but…I would get so bored. I live and breathe in colour, and it’s colour that stops me in my tracks and makes me want to pull my camera out. So in the end, I decide, it’s best to be yourself, and let the chips fall where they may. I keep my account colourful.

When, then, I discover an artist who changed the way colour was perceived, who found a way to make it bolder, even more captivating, my attention is caught. Perhaps it’s because the many masters that came after Delacroix expanded upon and experimented with so many exciting, fresh new ways to approach colour that it took me a little longer to appreciate Delacroix’s mastery as well. I’ve stood spellbound in front of many a van Gogh, Kandinsky, Matisse, Rodin, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir, but Delacroix’s rather old-fashioned subject matters at first made my eyes skip over his works rather too quickly. He is an artist well worth examining, well worth admiring, and his influence lives on through many famous painters that came after him.

tumblr_o163ikF6uP1rz2lkvo1_1280The Apotheosis of Delacroix, Paul Cézanne

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art closes at the National Gallery on the 22nd of this month, and if you haven’t seen it yet, then I definitely recommend a visit. There’s a wealth of fabulous paintings to see, and I’m very glad I got the chance to go a second time and appreciate it properly!

I’m curious – what is your gallery pace? How do you like to view paintings best? Do you have a particular friend who’s especially fun to bring along to exhibitions?

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