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Delacroix, by Paul G. Konody

TODAY, as one examines the ten masterpieces by Delacroix in the Salle des Etats at the Louvre — ten pictures which may without fear of contradiction be asserted to form an epitome of the art of the man who is now generally acknowledged to be the fountain- head of all modern ' art — one can only with difficulty understand the bitter hostility, the fierce passion, aroused by these works when Delacroix’s name was the battle-cry of the moderns, when Delacroix was the leader of the numerically small faction which waged heroic war against the inexorable tyrannic rule of academic art. What was once considered extreme and revolutionary, has become what might almost be described as a classic basis of a revaluation of aesthetic values. Even Manet’s “Olympia,” the starting-point of a more recent artistic upheaval, a picture which on its first appearance at the Paris Salon of 1865 was received with wild howls of execration, now falls into line at the Louvre with the other great masterpieces of painting. It marks a bold step in the evolution of modern art, but it is no longer disconcerting to our eyes. And Delacroix can no longer be denied classic rank.

To understand the significance of Delacroix in the art of his country, and the hostility shown to him by officialdom and by the un-thinking public almost during the whole course of his life, one has to trace back the art of painting in France to its very birth. It will then be found that the history of this art, from the moment when French painting emerges from the obscurity of the Middle Ages until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, is a history of an almost uninterrupted struggle between North and South.

All the efforts of chauvinistic French critics have failed to establish the existence of an early indigenous school. Nearly all the early painters who are mentioned in contemporary documents were Flemings who had settled in France. Their art is so closely allied to that of the Northern Schools, that it is sometimes impossible to establish the origin of pictures that are traditionally ascribed to French painters. But at the same time, perhaps in the train of the Popes who had transferred their Court to Avignon, Italian art began to invade France from the South. Simone Martini’s frescoes in the Papal Palace at Avignon certainly left their mark upon the School that arose in the Provencal city; and gradually traces of Italian influence made themselves felt in an art that remained Northern in its essential features.

There is at the National Gallery an early French panel, a “Scene from the Legend of St. Giles” (No. 1419), which clearly shows the harmonious blending of the two currents.

Italianism became paramount in French painting when, in the fourth decade of the sixteenth century, Rosso and Primaticcio followed the call of Francis I. and founded the School of Fontainebleau. From about 1532 right into the nineteenth century, the official art of France, that is to say, the art favoured by the rulers and encouraged by the Academy, was based on the imitation of Raphael and the Italians of the decline — an art that was essentially intellectual, cold, and dominated by drawing and design, not by colour. In the reign of Louis XIV., when Le Brun became the art despot of his country, the foundation of the Academy, and subsequently of the French School at Rome, led to the formulating of definite canons of formal beauty and of the “grand style.” Evolution on these lines was impossible. French art was only saved from stagnation by the influence of Northern art, from which it continued to derive its vitality. It was saved by painters who, like Philippe de Champaigne and Watteau, had

This picture was one of the first-fruits of Delacroix’s journey to Morocco with Count Mornay’s mission. It was painted in 1833, the year after his return to France, commissioned by the State at the price of 3000 frs. The handling of the upright figure of the negress suggests Spanish influence, and was in turn obviously well known to Manet when he painted his “ Olympia.” come from the North, or who, like the brothers Le Nain, Chardin, Boucher, Fragonard, and finally Delacroix, had drawn their inspiration either from the Dutchmen or from Rubens and the Flemings.

During the “grand” century there are only isolated instances of painters who resisted the tyranny of academic rule and the exclusive worship of classic antiquity. But whilst the professional painters meekly submitted to Le Brun’s tyranny, the revolt which was to trans- form the art of painting in France in the eighteenth century was heralded, nay initiated, in the field of polemic literature. A fierce battle was waged between the traditional advocates of the supremacy of line and the champions of colour, or rather of paint that fulfils a more vital function than the colouring of spaces created by linear design. It was the battle of the “ Poussinistes ” and the “ Rubenistes,” the two factions deriving their names from the great masters whose art was the supreme embodiment of the two opposed principles: Poussin and Rubens. F61ibien was the leader of those who espoused the cause of academic design with superimposed colour as a secondary consideration ; and Roger de Piles became the chief defender of colour as a constructive element.

The dawn of the eighteenth century, and the advent of Watteau, brought the signal victory of the Rub6nistes. The pompous style of the seventeenth century ebbed away with the life of the grand monarque. The new age de- manded a new art — the graceful and dainty art of the boudoir. At the very outset, Watteau carried the emotional expressiveness of pigment to a point where it could not be maintained by his followers and imitators. He had never been to Italy; and though he had studied the works of the Venetian colourists, his art was mainly derived from Flemish sources. But the Academy continued to send its most promising pupils to its branch school in Rome, where they were taught to worship at the shrine of Raphael and his followers, and whence they returned to continue the tradition of the School. Thus Italianism did not die, though it became transformed by the ascendency of the Rubens in- fluence and by the new social conditions. Mythology and allegory continued to rule supreme in the art of Boucher, which is the most typical expression of the French eighteenth century, but they are adapted to the decoration of the boudoir, and colour and brushwork are no longer subordinated to design. Boucher, the most French of all French painters, is inconceivable without two centuries of the Italian tradition of design and without Rubens’s example of handling paint. In the art of Fragonard, that great virtuoso of the brush, the influence of Rubens becomes absolutely paramount. Only a few youthful failures recall his study of the Italians.

Fragonard witnessed the end of the ancien regime and the great political upheaval of the French Revolution. With the monarchy died the sensuous art of the fetes galantes. The painting that flourished in the Napoleonic era was more formal, cold, and academic than at any previous epoch. David and his followers sought their inspiration in Roman history, and at purity of line and the dogmas of the School higher than ever. Their idealism was of a bombastic, rhetorical order ; their painting absolutely uninspired tinting of pseudo-classic designs. At no period had French art sunk to such a level of dulness. The death of David left his great pupil Ingres, the most perfect draughtsman of the nineteenth century, the undisputed leader of the School. But the day of freedom was at hand — and the liberating word was to be pronounced by Delacroix. The seventeenth-century war between the “ Poussinistes ” and the “Rubdnistes” was to be resumed, although the two parties were now re-christened “ Classicists ” and “ Romanticists.” But this time the war was one of deeds, and not of words. Ingres was the leader of an army; Delacroix fought almost single-handed. And, for once, victory did not favour the large battalions.

Delacroix, by Paul G. Konody
Delacroix, by Paul G. Konody
Paul G. Konody (1910) Delacroix, London, T.C. & E.C. Jack; New York, F.A. Stokes

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