Between Concept and Results in Art / by Jeannine Cook

It is always interesting to get insights into how other artists work, their approach to creating art and their thoughts about the process. Perhaps it is just a feeling that one might be walking the same path, or maybe that one can learn from some someone else's experiences.

I found that there is a great deal to learn from a wonderful exhibition currently on display in Barcelona at La Caixa Forum, Delacroix, de la idea a la expresion, an exhibit that runs until May 20th. It is a huge, well curated exhibition done in conjunction with the Louvre, with works from collections in North America and all over Europe.

One of the main aspects of the show really addresses this issue of how an artist conceives of a work, and how it eventually turns out. I found it fascinating, for the highly talented, young Delacroix was always wrestling with the tension between the ideas that he had for paintings, mostly inspired by literature, political events or legends when he was young, and their execution. Eugene Delacroix even kept lists of ideas that he had for paintings and worked from these lists throughout his life, using them sometimes almost as talismans against the absence of inspiration.

Self-Portrait   in Green Waistcoat, circa 1837, image courtesy of the Louvre.)

Self-Portrait in Green Waistcoat,circa 1837, image courtesy of the Louvre.)

This tension between concept and completed work caused Delacroix much thought, and it was a subject he revisted often during his life. Writing in 1822 about painting and poetry (his early love was poetry which he forsook to be an artist), he observed that, "When I paint a good painting, I am not writing down my thoughts". He was very aware of that mysterious bridge that a painting builds between the artist, the soul of the painting and the viewer, a subtle, intimate dialogue.

Yet Delacroix often caused a great deal of controversy, especially in his early days as an artist. He was highly successful, yet his work was frequently vilified by the public and critics for the way in which he executed the painting. An example of the scandal he created was his 1827 painting, The Death of Sardanapalus, a huge work that harks back in energy and colouration to his hero, Peter Paul Rubens. Delacroix' original concept for this painting was, as documented by his Journal, inspired by the shock of reading about the despot, Sardanapalus, in Byron's poem. He devised a painting that was to be ferocious and somber, but in truth, that deviated from Bryon's account and the original accounts of Sardanapalus.

The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827/1844 oil on canvas, Eugene Delacroix, (Image courtesy of the Louvre.)

The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827/1844 oil on canvas, Eugene Delacroix, (Image courtesy of the Louvre.)

The painting, when completed, had strayed even farther from his original idea, for Delacroix had become entirely seduced by the curves, the colours, the play of light on skin and fabrics, the plasticity of what he was depicting. The model whom he used, first for pastel studies, and then for the painting in different poses, delighted him with her skin tones and forms. Gradually he selected different fabrics, different details, different poses and far more adventurous perspectives. When he had completed this picture, which was so transformed from its original concept, he added a new version of explanations in the 1827-28 Salon catalogue when he exhibited the painting. Now he talked of Aisha, a Bactrian woman who hung herself rather than have a slave put her to death – a story not talked of in the texts from which Delacroix had derived his inspiration for this painting. (Image courtesy of the Louvre.)

I am sure that every artist, having thought of a theme and concept for a work of art, sets about its execution, only to find that the results differ, sometimes widely, from the original idea. I know that it certainly happens to me, and I find myself looking with dismay and/or surprise at what has been produced. It is then somewhat difficult to judge if the evolution from idea to result has been positive or negative. Only time tells one the judgement. Delacroix, I am sure, found out the same thing as the public reacted to his paintings that had undergone quite an evolution from concept to completion.