By his early twenties, Delacroix had already apprenticed with the popular French painter Guérin and befriended the famed history painter Géricault. It was the latter who tapped the young artist to pose for his controversial 1819 masterwork The Raft of the Medusa, in the process teaching Delacroix about the shock value of contentious subject matter and stylistic risks. By 1822, at the age of 24, Delacroix was ready to make his own statement.
For his first major painting, exhibited at the 1822 Paris Salon, Delacroix chose to depict a dramatic scene from the Inferno, the first section of Dante’s epic 14th-century poem The Divine Comedy. The artist threw himself passionately into the project, spending as many as 13 hours a day in the studio. As he worked, a garish, emotional scene took over the canvas, which illustrates the canto in which Dante and Virgil cross the River Styx into Hell. In the face of the turbid violence and death that surrounds them, Dante’s fear is palpable.
Indeed, when Delacroix unveiled the work, it caused a stir. For one, he’d chosen an unconventional theme; at the time, the Inferno was an uncommon subject in French art. What’s more, he highlighted the protagonist’s apprehension rather than his courage, in opposition to traditional history paintings. The painting not only made a name for Delacroix (it was subsequently purchased by the state), but also ushered in the Romantic style, which emphasized humanity over heroism, and the realities of violence over sanitized triumph.