Delacroix exhibit opens in Philadelphia Themes of sex, violence mark works of 19th-century French master

October 08, 1998|By Francesca Chapman | Francesca Chapman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - "Delacroix: The Late Work," will be on display through Jan. 3 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Sex and violence" marks the work of the 19th-century French master, says Joseph J. Rishel, curator of the museum

The museum's display of 70 paintings and 40 drawings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) has an ample helping of bosomy maidens in distress, big cats shredding their prey and Turks waving scimitars. That should help get you in the door.

Once there, however, confronted with the vivid canvases - which also include tranquil seascapes, jewel-like still lifes and deeply felt biblical scenes - you can ponder the place of Delacroix in the evolution of art.

Link between old and new

The museum's experts consider Delacroix the link between the last Old Masters and the first artists of the French Romantic movement.

"As conservative and backward-looking as he was," noted Rishel, glancing at Delacroix's hunting scenes and mythological heroes, "he was the one artist people of his generation looked to, to see what was next.

"Everybody from Manet to Corbet to Degas looked to him."

Students of art will recognize how the later artist Cezanne could have been inspired by Delacroix's verdant French landscapes and shimmering bathers.

If you know Monet's obsessive repainting of a haystack or bridge in every conceivable light, it's clear he might have gotten the bug from Delacroix's comprehensive studies of the sea, skies and cliffs.

The spark of modernism is evident even in the most old-fashioned of themes, notes Rishel. "The Lion Hunt" (1858), at first glance, is an indistinguishable blaze of color, with maybe an arm flailing here, a flash of teeth there.

"It's about hunters being mauled by lions. He's very cinematic, kind of the movies of his day," the curator said.

"He wants you to think it's just a blaze of commotion. You're not supposed to know how much discipline and energy it takes" to create.

That's the preview of abstraction, of modernism to come, in the ** work of the 19th-century master. Like those of his students, years later, Delacroix's bolder canvases showed less painstaking detail in a scene, offering instead "a sense of place. It's a very emotive, suggestive thing," explained Rishel.

In his last 15 years

The works on display were created by Delacroix in the prolific last 15 years of his life, before his death at 65. The "Late Work" shows that the artist was not only working with brilliant technical achievement, but was familiar with a lifetime's worth of diverse topics for his subjects.

The exhibit is arranged to reflect Delacroix's wide range of interests. The paintings and illustrations, brought together by the Museum and the Reunion des Musees Nationaux in Paris, are displayed according to themes that run through his late works:

* Animals. Delacroix's cats don't snooze on the windowsill: There are the above-mentioned hunt gone terribly wrong, "Struggle Between a Lion and a Tiger" (1854), "Lion Devouring an Alligator" (1855), the particularly horrifying "Young Woman Attacked by a Tiger" (1856), and many other canvases depicting cats on the prowl.

* Allegory and mythology. Delacroix spent years in later life painting climactic scenes from the tales he enjoyed in his youth. Do you need to know, for instance, who "The Bride of Abydos" (1849-1851) is? There she is with her heaving bosom; somebody's waving a pistol; somebody else is brandishing a scimitar. If you want the details, the museum provides a detailed summary of the story (loveless marriage, escape with boyfriend, pirates, death by heartbreak) for this and similar pieces.

* Flowers and landscapes. In the late 1840s, Delacroix worked more frequently on these gentler subjects. He typically sketched his impressions of the sea at the coast of Normandy, or of flora in woods and gardens near his home, and painted the scenes later from memory.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.