Understanding Eugène Delacroix through 5 of His Most Provocative Artworks

Alexxa Gotthardt
Sep 10, 2018 9:14PM

French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix understood the power of provocation. In 1820s Paris, he boldly jettisoned the realistic treatment of color and line pioneered by great history painters before him, such as Pierre-Narcisse Guérin and Théodore Géricault. Instead, the young artist embraced vivid hues, furious brushstrokes, and tumults of writhing subjects. The conservative establishment was shocked, but the burgeoning Parisian avant-garde celebrated his iconoclastic approach to traditional painting genres. Delacroix was “a volcanic crater artistically concealed beneath bouquets of flowers” and a painter “passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible,” rhapsodized poet Charles Baudelaire some years later.

Over the course of Delacroix’s approximately 40-year career, which spanned from the early 1820s until his death in 1863, the artist sought fame and courted controversy. Ultimately, he transformed the pictorial tradition through his deep sensitivity to light, his radiant palette, and his unconventional—as well as brutally raw—treatment of classical and historical subjects. Delacroix credited these innovations to a lively imagination: “The source of genius is imagination alone, the refinement of the senses that sees what others do not see, or sees them differently,” he wrote in his diaries.

Delacroix’s expressionistic work paved the way for Impressionism and inspired a pantheon of modern painters, from Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas to Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. This year, Delacroix’s enduring influence is celebrated in a major traveling retrospective that originated at Paris’s Musée du Louvre this past March, and opens at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 17th. Below, we explore the pioneering Romantic painter’s impact by pulling back the curtain on five of his most enduring works.

The Barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in Hell)(1822)

Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)


Just five years later, Delacroix brought the themes and stylistic choices introduced in The Barque of Dante to dramatic fruition with The Death of Sardanapalus. Inspired by Lord Byron’s tragic poem, Delacroix portrayed the cataclysmic suicide of Assyrian ruler Sardanapalus. The artist strayed from Byron’s original script, casting the scene in his own violent vision. Here, Delacroix portrays the king as a despondent, vindictive, and selfish ruler. Besieged by enemies, Sardanapalus decides to take not only his own life, but to burn all of his opulent possessions and sources of pleasure, too. The composition shows the king atop a jewel-encrusted bed on a pyre, where he’s also dragged an agonized group of women, horses, dogs, and other earthly treasures, the whole lot of them poised to go up in flames.

When Delacroix presented this work at the 1828 Paris Salon, it inspired even greater rancor than The Barque of Dante. This time, viewers took issue with the painting’s forceful palette and swirling, lawless composition: “Are we to give the title of composition to this incomprehensible hodgepodge of men, women, dogs, horses, logs, vases, instruments of every kind, enormous columns, oversize bed, all thrown down pell-mell, without stylistic effects or perspective, and hanging in mid-air!” seethed critic Charles Paul Landon.  

Gone in this picture is any sense of classical order. Instead, the artist created drama through a theatrical treatment of light and a torrential cascade of Rubenesque bodies that barely follow the rules of anatomy. For the exotic costumes and décor, Delacroix took inspiration from a diverse array of references, from Mughal manuscripts to medieval engravings to Indian paintings. The painting is so massive—and so spellbinding—that writer Victor Hugo praised it as “beyond small minds.” The work would later be regarded as a turning point in Delacroix’s practice, propelling him towards his mature style.

July 28, 1830: Liberty Leading the People (1830)

In 1830, the people of Paris embarked on a bloody revolt against their country’s increasingly oppressive monarch, Bourbon king Charles X. That same year, Delacroix applied his Romantic approach to this momentous contemporary event. “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her,” the painter wrote to his brother, just several months after the July uprising.

The monumental canvas that resulted is widely regarded as Delacroix’s magnum opus. Here, the artist fuses classical allegory with the brutally real battle that raged all around him, a hybrid approach he would go on to explore for years. At the center of the canvas, the figure of Liberty is represented as a young woman leading soldiers into battle. Contrary to classical representations of Liberty, which show the goddess as immortal and untouchable, Delacroix portrays her in the heat of action, her face flushed as she takes in the grisly casualties of war. The urgency and intensity of the battle is further emphasized by the pyramidal composition, which shows Liberty atop a towering pyramid of suffering, dying bodies, all rendered with vigorous brushwork.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1833–34)

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1834. Photo by Franck Raux. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Delacroix rarely left his native France, but in 1832, he joined the French government’s convoy on a trip to Morocco, stopping in Algeria on his return. “I am like a man in a dream, seeing things he fears will vanish from him,” Delacroix later enthused of the experience in his journals. The trip would leave a lasting impact on his practice, inspiring close to 80 vibrant and intimate genre paintings rooted in his time abroad (not to mention a prolific portfolio of related drawings and studies).

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, completed soon after the artist returned to France, is Delacroix’s most influential from this body of work. Based on a tour he took of the women’s quarters (or harem) of a Muslim home, it depicts four women draped in loose patterned clothing, surrounded by richly hued carpets and shimmering objects, like the hookah pipe one subject cradles. Baudelaire referred to the languid scene as a “small poem of an interior full of rest and silence.”

The painting marked a new facet of Delacroix’s practice, in which he treated a genre scene with the scale and detail of a history painting. The work also evidences the artist’s contributions to Orientalism, a movement that spread across Europe in the 1800s as the continent came into more frequent contact with North Africa and the Middle East through its colonial efforts. The art that resulted saw Western painters problematically exoticizing the Eastern world; in some cases, Orientalist works served as propaganda for European imperialist agendas. While Delacroix’s painting played into these dynamics, he maintained that the work was inspired by his admiration for Algerian culture, in which the artist believed he had found a “living antiquity.” When the canvas was exhibited at the 1834 Salon, it inspired a rash of copies. In the early 1900s, modernist painters like Picasso and Henri Matisse would likewise be driven to make their own versions.

Lion Hunt (1860–61)

Over the course of his career, Delacroix became increasingly concerned with man’s relationship with nature; he explored this preoccupation through representations of wild animals like tigers and lions, often shown battling humans to the death. Completed just two years before Delacroix’s own death, Lion Hunt shows the artist’s emotionally charged treatment of the relationship between beast and man at its most developed.

Here, two lions and a band of men dressed in North African garb duke it out in a violent altercation. Amidst the maelstrom of wrestling bodies, it is unclear which party has the upper hand. This was an intentional choice by Delacroix, who believed that “civilized man shares much with the animal and the savage,” as historian Eve Twose Kliman has pointed out. The perspective in Lion Hunt contrasts with earlier works by revered predecessors like Peter Paul Rubens, who routinely portrayed man’s triumph over nature, and signifies Delacroix’s thoroughly modern sensibility.

Alexxa Gotthardt