Three exhibitions in New York, each by a superb artist in a different century, but all united by a lifelong passion to draw, draw, draw, anything and everything. For an artist, these current exhibitions are a wonderful reaffirmation of the central role drawing potentially plays in the development and creativity of an artist. Gainsborough, Delacroix, Wayne Thiebaud - three very dissimilar artists, yet they are all on the same page in a drawing book.Read More
It is always encouraging when you read of a great painter in the past expressing what you feel about different subjects. In this case, Delacroix opining about nature.
I bought a lovely book on Delacroix recently entitled Delacroix, Chevaux et Félins/ Delacroix, Horses and Felines. Published in 2011 by the Bibliothèque de l'Image in Paris, it is a wonderful selection of Delacroix' watercolours, drawings and paintings of horses and lions, tigers and even domestic cats. Masterful, vivid, probing and clearly, often, very much working drawings done from life as the animals moved around. Many of these studies later found their way into major paintings he executed, especially his studies of horses.
What especially resonated with me was the page quoted as an extract from his personal journal, dated Tuesday, 19th January 1847. Delacroix opens by stating that the "Cabinet" of natural history is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays - in other words, he goes to visit the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He joyfully lists all the amazing selection of animals to be seen there, both alive and stuffed, from elephants and rhinos to lamas or bison, and even the famous giraffe given to Charles X of France by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in 1827 which was, by 1847, still there in stuffed glory.
Delacroix then goes on to muse, in his journal entry for that day's visit, about the emotions he experienced. "What could cause the emotion that I experienced at the sight of all this? Perhaps that I was taken out of the pedestrian ideas that form my world, away from the street that bounds my universe. How necessary it is to shake oneself from time to time, to stick one's head outside, to try to read from the natural world, which has nothing at all in common with our cities and with the work of men. Definitely, this view I experienced made me feel better and more tranquil."
Delacroix loved watching all the animals he drew and painted - he got to know their movements, their attitudes, their characteristics. He even drew their skeletons and skinned bodies to learn better how to portray them. His depictions of their movements and essence are full of vigour and passion, excitement and wonder. His studies are as fresh today as if they were executed yesterday. To my eye, as so often happens, that vigour and immediacy is however often lost when he uses those studies in his large oil paintings.
A study of a horse that shows Delacroix' probing eye.
The delight that Delacroix experienced from aspects of Nature is an emotion that I can relate to very easily. The endless fascination and wonder that is there for one to observe and learn about does indeed appear as soon as one steps out into the natural world.
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.
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 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.