Eugène Delacroix - Biography
A loving childhood followed by tragedy in his youth
Eugène Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798, near Paris, in Charenton-Saint-Maurice. The house of his birth has become a media library in the city of Saint-Maurice (in what is now the Val-de-Marne department). When he was born, his father, Charles Delacroix, held an important position as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as ambassador to Holland. He was later appointed prefect in Marseille, and then Bordeaux, where he died when Eugène was only six years old. His mother, Victoire Delacroix, was the daughter of renowned cabinetmaker, Jean-François Oeben, who worked for King Louis XV.
Eugène was the youngest of a family of four children; his brothers Charles and Henri, and his sister Henriette, whose portrait was painted by David, were already much older when he was born. The Delacroix family served the Revolution and the Empire that followed it. Delacroix had a loving but fragile childhood, for he was often sickly as a boy. When his father passed away, he and his mother moved to Rue de l’Université in Paris. The young Eugène went to the Lycée Impérial (now the Lycée Louis-le-Grand), where he formed loyal, life-long friendships. He was of a studious nature, and had already acquired a taste for drawing and reading. The death of his mother in 1814 left him feeling lost and alone, despite the presence of his older siblings, Charles and Henriette.
With the help of his uncle, the painter Henri-François Riesener, Eugène Delacroix entered the studio of painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in 1815. It was one of the biggest studios in Paris at the time, frequented by many artists. Guérin was a highly appreciated history painter who was very attuned to the theatrical art of his time. Although he was attentive to his students, he failed to recognize the young Delacroix’s talent. The influence of Théodore Géricault, who had already earned acclaim for his paintings shown at the Salon of 1812 and then of 1814, was precious to the young man. Delacroix even posed for his elder’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819, Musée du Louvre).
A remarkable debut
At only twenty-four years of age, Delacroix submitted his first work to the Salon of 1882, inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil in Hell (Musée du Louvre). The artwork immediately caught the attention of critics. He quickly incarnated a new generation of artists qualified as Romantic, a term inspired by literature. Like his contemporaries Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz, and Alfred de Musset, Delacroix wanted to pursue his own style and reshape the concept of art. Like them, he also had deep knowledge of the art of the Old Masters. At the Louvre, which opened in 1793, Delacroix discovered and admired the works of Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens, and Poussin.
For the Salon of 1824, he presented a large painting depicting events of the Greek War of Independence, The Massacre at Scio (Louvre). In 1827, Delacroix exhibited several other paintings, including the masterful Death of Sardanapalus (Louvre). Inspired by Lord Byron’s tragedy, the painting portrays the Assyrian ruler upon a pyre, surrounded by his horses, his treasures, his wives, all the possessions he wanted destroyed with him, sentenced to death for treason. While the painting was praised by Victor Hugo and Dumas, critics were shocked by its whirling composition, primacy of color, and violent tones. Delacroix emerged, definitively, as a remarkable painter, whose style broke with the customs and academic rules of the time.
Liberty Leading the People, an iconic work of art
On July 27, 28 and 29, 1830, the people of Paris revolted, outraged by the new laws on the freedom of the press and the severity of the Restoration regime. July 29 marked the end of the Bourbons on the throne of France. Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans, became King of the French. Eugène Delacroix drew inspiration from the events of 1830 for a painting that he submitted to the Salon of 1831: Liberty Leading the People, a monumental canvas that mixes classical allegory with contemporary realism. The painting was purchased by the government and exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg, then a museum for living artists showing contemporary work. The following year, the massacre by police of residents of Rue Transnonain in Paris complicated the public display of the Barricades, as Delacroix referred to the painting. It was in fact returned to the artist, who nevertheless managed to show it in a retrospective of his work at the 1855 World Fair. Put on display in the Louvre in 1874, along with other works by Delacroix acquired by the State, Liberty Leading the People became an iconic work of art under the Third Republic.
1832: the voyage to Morocco
In January 1832, Delacroix accompanied King Louis-Philippe’s envoy, the Comte de Mornay, to Morocco. The French conquest of Algeria the previous year had given the Moroccan sultan cause for worry. A diplomatic mission was required. The painter was not a big traveler, having only ever left France to spend the summer of 1825 in England, so the Moroccan journey from Tangier to Meknes was an amazement. He was fascinated by the landscapes, sounds, and colors, as well as the beauty of the people and their attire. He felt he had found the Orient of his dreams, as well as an Antiquity preserved. Delacroix’s memories of Morocco stayed with him his entire life. The notes he took, the watercolors he painted, and the objects he brought back from his travels and kept in his studio, went on to inspire over 72 paintings on Morocco during his lifetime.
Painted walls: Delacroix as decorator
A large share of Eugène Delacroix’s work is dedicated to monumental decoration of both secular and religious buildings in Paris. In 1826, he had already been commissioned for Christ in the Garden of Olives for the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in the Marais district. In 1834, Delacroix received the backing of Adolphe Thiers and was commissioned for a fresco painting in the Salon du Roi of the Palais Bourbon (Chambre des Députés); in 1837, he received a commission to decorate the library ceiling of the Chambre des Députés celebrating arts and science. In the mid-1840s, he also painted the decor of the Palais du Luxembourg library, currently the Senate. In the early 1850s, Delacroix was honored to receive a commission for the central ceiling of the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre, which was designed in the 17th century and left unfinished by painter Charles Le Brun. It depicts the god Apollo slaying the serpent Python, the victory of light over darkness, a victory of color. The City of Paris commissioned decorative paintings for the Salon de la Paix in the Hôtel de Ville, which were unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1871.
His artworks can also be found in the churches of Paris; after Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, Delacroix painted a moving Pietà for the church of Saint-Denis-du-Saint-Sacrement, on what is now Rue Turenne. In 1849, he was commissioned for the decor of the Saints-Anges chapel in the one of the largest churches in Paris, Saint-Sulpice; his majestic work remained there until 1861. He produced two large mural paintings opposite one another, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel and Heliodorus Driven from the Temple, as well as Saint-Michael Slaying the Dragon on the ceiling.
Recognition at the 1855 World Fair
The 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, organized at the request of Emperor Napoleon III, provided an opportunity for Eugène Delacroix to receive recognition. Alongside painters Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Horace Vernet, he was honored at the heart of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, on Avenue Montaigne, with a special exhibition featuring over thirty works of his choosing. Delacroix was thus designated one of the greatest French painters of his time.
The move to Rue de Furstemberg, a haven in Paris
Delacroix moved to Rue de Furstemberg in 1857 so he could finish his work on Saint-Sulpice. His apartment was also close to the Institut de France; in January 1857, on his seventh attempt, the painter was finally accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts. The garden for which he had exclusive use and could landscape as he wished was the deciding factor. His new home, set between the courtyard and the garden, was a peaceful haven at the heart of Paris, conducive to creation in all forms, be it drawing, painting, or writing. The painter also frequently travelled to his house in Champrosay, a village near the Sénart forest and now part of the town of Draveil (Essonne). He was a melancholic dreamer, a solitary nature-lover who enjoyed going for long walks and observing the forest. His devoted housekeeper, Jenny Le Guillou, entered into his service around 1835 and was the only one who lived by his side, shielding him from the worries of everyday life.
August 13, 1863: Eugène Delacroix’s death
Eugène Delacroix died on August 13, 1863 in his apartment on Rue de Furstemberg. Jenny Le Guillou remained faithful to his last breath, watching over him until the wee hours of the morning.