Eugène Delacroix was born in 1798, the youngest of the four children of a major French statesman, who at one time was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. His siblings were much older, and the senior of them became one of Napoleon’s generals. Although his parents were wealthy and influential, he lost both of them by the time he was sixteen, and protracted financial problems with their estates left him in need of a career.
In 1815, he started training as a pupil of Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in Paris, the following year entering the École des Beaux-Arts, and obtained his first independent commission for a religious painting in 1819, the same year that Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa was exhibited at the Salon. He had posed for Géricault when he was suffering from jaundice the previous year, and Géricault was another former pupil of Guérin. The two became good friends, and the painting became a major influence on Delacroix.
By 1821, Delacroix had secured another commission, this time passed on from Géricault, for the cathedral in Nantes. This was Delacroix’s first large format work, and unlike the previous painting which was heavily influenced by Raphael, this has more of the look of Rubens. This study for Virgin of the Sacred Heart (1821) appears well advanced.
His finished Triumph of Religion, Virgin of the Sacred Heart (1821) is thought to have been refused by the clergy, and in 1827 ended up in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Ajaccio, capital of the French island of Corsica. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1930s.
In these early years Delacroix secured some decorative work, including a set of lunettes of the seasons for the Hôtel de Talma in Paris. He also made satyrical lithographs for publication.
He continued figurative studies over this period. Mademoiselle Rose (1817-24) shows one of his regular models.
She appears again in Seated Nude in 1820, which suggests she was posed for another painting.
In the summer of 1821, he decided to make his name at the next Salon the following year, and considered the theme of his submission. Among his favourites was the subject of the war of Greek Independence, which had just started, but eventually he settled on a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Following the lead of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, he chose a literal depiction of Canto 8, showing Dante and Virgil crossing the river Acheron by boat.
In the end, Delacroix painted The Barque of Dante quite quickly, over an intense period of a little over two and a half months, just in time for submission to the Salon. It was ambitious in taking a well-known post-classical narrative and presenting it in the context of Géricault’s masterpiece, with rough water and strong winds, and the sinners around the small craft. Dante, wearing his distinctive scarlet chaperon (hat), holds his hand up as he leans back onto the shoulder of Virgil his guide. This has been interpreted as showing how, when we encounter challenges from the modern we should look to tradition for support.
The painting was fortunate in having little competition that year, and brought Delacroix the attention he sought, even if some of its critics weren’t as favourable as they might have been. Some, like Delacroix’s former teacher Guérin, were thoroughly negative, but the painting won praise from others including Gros, and was purchased by the State. It remains one of his greatest narrative paintings, and one of the finest made of Dante’s Inferno.
The next Salon was announced for the summer of 1824, setting Delacroix the challenge of following up that initial success. He continued to pursue his interest in the war between the Turks and Greeks with further studies.
Among those is Two Greek Soldiers Dancing from 1824-25, in which he works on the difficulties of depicting movement.
Two Studies of an Indian from Calcutta, Seated and Standing is a more static subject from 1823-24.
Although thought to be from the 1830s, this Self-portrait shows Delacroix in the early years of his career.
In 1823, a year before the next Salon, Delacroix settled on the theme for his primary submission as scenes from the Massacre of Chios, which had taken place the previous year. However, he continued to develop other works, including several of related motifs.
Among those is this Young Orphan Girl in a Cemetery, painted in February 1824, and submitted to that Salon alongside his next landmark painting, almost as a pendant.
Barthélémy Jobert (2018) Delacroix, new and expanded edn, Princeton UP. ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0.
Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle (2015) Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 978 1 857 09575 3.
Lucy Norton (translator) (1995) The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, 3rd edn, Phaedon. ISBN 978 0 7148 3359 0.
Arlette Sérullaz (2004) Delacroix, Louvre Drawing Gallery, 5 Continents. ISBN 978 8 874 39105 9.
Beth S Wright (editor) (2001) The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 65077 1.