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Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix - Alfred
Eugène Delacroix - Alfred

©Louvre/Harry Brejat

Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 1798 – Paris, 1863
Autograph manuscript
25 folios in 12°
H. 17.8 cm; W. 11.5 cm
Half morocco bound, Semet & Plumelle
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Pierre Guénant, 2012 (MD 2012-6 )

“It’s necessary to insist a bit at first, but once the ball gets rolling, I find it just as easy to write as I do to paint. And, strangely enough, I have less of a need to go back over what I’ve done.” So writes Delacroix of his fondness for writing in his Journal on July 21, 1850.

His talent as a writer, so apparent in the Journal, is already evident in this short story of historical fiction. “Alfred” was written in small, tight and regular script sometime between 1815 and 1817, and tells the tragic tale of an English count in the medieval period – an exoticism at the time. The poor Count de Burtmann, believing his death to be near after a battle with the French, follows the counsel of his treacherous chaplain Harold and decides to offer his only son and heir, Alfred, to God and the church, should his wound heal. The chaplain recommends this pledge because the count is exceedingly wealthy.

The charming Alfred loves Amélie, the daughter of a neighboring lord, but understands when his beloved father returns that he will be torn away from her. The count’s dramatic hesitations, the son’s internal agonies, and upsurges of hope follow one after the other as they lead to the tragic end of both father and son.

The young Delacroix made use of a style so fluent that he revised very little of the story, drawing the turbulent emotions that bring his characters to life with passion and accuracy. And, young politically engaged writer that he was, Delacroix did not miss the opportunity to champion his liberal ideas and denounce the poor count’s villainous and manipulative cleric: “In those gloomy centuries when it was a crime to think for oneself and to see with one’s own eyes, when the course as laid was the only one men could follow, when genius – constrained by the narrow bounds that ignorance and fanaticism had forbidden it to cross – was obliged to grovel and stoop beneath the yoke of accepted customs, superstitions that had rooted themselves in the hearts of men, and errors that misled all and sundry, is it any wonder that crafty and cunning men succeeded in controlling men by such crude means? The indignant genius raised his voice as his reason, worn thin by so many insults, attempted to make itself heard. The priests shouted it down as impious, anathema. The fanatical people who believed it was total devastation if the old prejudices were so much as grazed stood up to chastise the bold man, who was the sole to realize his debasement among them; and the pyre was recompense for the rash one unhappy enough to escape the stupidity of his fellow citizens. Such was the state of Europe for over fifteen centuries.” (folio 9)

While the young writer deftly pleads in favor of liberty here, in later years, the painter would go on to make use of his palette’s genius to defend it.

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