Before it moves on to London, “Delacroix’s Influence” has a few more weeks — five, in fact — to run in Minneapolis. It should not be missed.
For this capstone of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s centennial celebration, the museum’s painting curator Patrick Noon gathered a cornucopia of 19th-century paintings, mostly French, by a stellar roster of talents including Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Cezanne, Sargent and, of course, Delacroix.
On loan from more than 40 museums and private collections in Europe and the United States, they are the kind of grand and valuable pictures that museums lend only if the scholarship is important and the occasion significant. Some of the loans are unique to Minnesota and will not travel to London’s National Gallery after the Minneapolis debut ends Jan. 10.
More than just a collection of top-draw names, “Delacroix” offers a new interpretation of the origins of modernist art with its bright colors, contemporary subjects, experimental techniques and attitudes.
Conventional art history says modernism blossomed suddenly in 1863 when a bunch of young French rebels, rejected by the establishment, staged their own exhibition, the famous “Salon des Refusés.” To Noon and his London collaborator Christopher Riopelle, that simplistic notion ignores what critics and artists themselves said at the time.
They deploy the show’s 78 paintings to demonstrate persuasively that the modernist impulse throbbed much earlier in the century, is rooted in British literature and French Romantic painting of the 1820s, and is deeply indebted to the rambunctious life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863).
Regardless of rationale, the paintings are an opulent, fascinating collection, including some very unusual pictures.
Delacroix’s influence is dramatically apparent in two stunning portraits at the show’s entrance, each more than 7 feet tall. The first is the artist’s insightful 1826 portrayal of his aristocratic friend “Louis-Auguste Schwiter” as a sensitive young dandy in black frock coat and beribboned dancing slippers, poised on a terrace before a moody landscape. A model of elegance, it was reprised more than 75 years later by John Singer Sargent, who virtually copied the composition for his forbidding 1902 image of “Lord Ribblesdale,” a haughty grandee in hunting outfit complete with coiled whip.
Besides a charming and quite typical 1880 Degas dance scene, there are two extraordinary paintings Degas did 20 years earlier that are quite unlike anything else in his work — a strange, sexually charged scene of prepubescent “Young Spartans Exercising” on a grassy plain under the indifferent eyes of their elders, and a half-finished oil sketch of young Alexander the Great quieting the wild horse Bucephalus. Both paintings show Degas’ drawing skill and beautiful chalky paint, while their odd subjects date to a time when, inspired by Delacroix’s late work, he aspired to be a history painter.
Gauguin, too, was so enamored of Delacroix that he included a sketch of a Delacroix mural in one of his own colorful still lifes, and borrowed the pose of a Delacroix Christ figure for another highly expressive scene in which Gauguin, ever the wannabe martyr, painted his own face on the head of Christ. They are revelatory paintings, along with an extraordinary Van Gogh “Pieta,” whose composition is copied from Delacroix, but bizarrely done up in Van Gogh’s typical lemon yellow and cobalt blue with Christ’s skin in pink, green and aqua.
Delacroix excelled also at so called “Orientalist” paintings of exotic interiors and North African battles that allowed him enormous freedom in painting charging horses, clashing swords, fallen steeds, trampled bodies.
With his thin washes of background paint overlaid with flickering swirls of juicy color, his canvases burst with the expressive energy of battlefield sketches. It’s easy to understand why artists like Renoir — as seen in an Orientalist portrait of a young Algerian woman — were so influenced by Delacroix’s fluid way with paint.
And then there are Delacroix’s landscapes executed in oil paint thinned to the transparency of watercolor. His technical experiments of that sort were a continual inspiration to colleagues, and his little “Landscape Near Champrosay” shows why, with its limpid light and spontaneous flickers of color depicting the forested valley around his beloved “hermitage” overlooking the Seine River south of Paris.
A mere 13 inches wide, “Landscape” is a tiny, easily overlooked gem that beautifully complements Frédéric Bazille’s magnificent “Landscape by the River Lez” nearby. One of the Minneapolis museum’s own landscape masterpieces, the Bazille’s open skies, ragged trees and sunlit plateau surely owe their clarity to Delacroix’s innovative example.
Even in floral still lifes, often disparaged as a “female” subject, Delacroix’s example inspired Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bazille and others with the spontaneity of his observations. While the others’ flowers are mostly decorative, Delacroix’s dark, storm-tossed “Peonies” breathe and shudder. Look closely at those petals before they flutter, fade and fall.
The heart of Paris
Artists were a close-knit confederation back then, constantly copying each other’s compositions, cribbing techniques, penning observations and opinions. For most of the 19th century, Delacroix was at the center of the ferment, admired for his fierce independence, technical experiments, bold colors, innovative compositions, tempestuous persona and mastery of every subject from historical and literary allegories to Oriental fantasies, portraits, landscapes and flower paintings.
His work was visible everywhere in Paris, especially in history paintings and ceiling murals at the Louvre and in the city’s government buildings and churches. (Be sure to watch the museum’s wonderfully informative video tour of those sites and of the artist’s studio, which is now a museum.)
Few artists have exerted as much influence as he did over a century. Now sometimes reduced to a footnote in history, Delacroix deserves better, as this brilliant and iconoclastic show proves.