Born on 28 April 1798, at Charenton Sainte-Marie near Paris, Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix was the son of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the post-revolutionary Directory, or was he? It has long been rumoured that he was the illegitimate issue of his father’s successor the great French Statesman and political chameleon, Prince Maurice de Talleyrand.
There was certainly a physical resemblance and he inherited a number of other characteristics such as an inestimable charm and the ability to sway with any prevailing wind.
Never wanting for money his childhood ambition to become an artist was never in doubt and he studied in Paris under the much respected painter Pierre-Narcisse Guerin but in a neo-classical style which despite teaching him the rudiments of his profession, the methodology and technique required of the artist, he would find stifling and later for the most part abandon.
Delacroix was a romantic by temperament and by choice being a great admirer of the English poet Lord Byron and the artist JMW Turner whose swirl of activity and motion he would seek to replicate in his own painting.
Never as popular as his great rival Jean-Auguste Ingres who remained firmly in the neo-classical style he believed that the canvass could be every bit as emotional as the written word and that art could convey as much feeling as the greatest of the bards.
In 1832, he travelled to North Africa, an exotic place far removed from the well-ordered salons of Paris- here were the Romans and Greeks of the modern age – he was excited and enthralled.
It soon entered his blood and was to consume much of his work for the rest of his life.
Delacroix is most famous now for his painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ which is often wrongly thought to depict the French Revolution of 1789. It does indeed refer to revolution but that of 1830 in Paris which deposed the last Bourbon Monarch Charles X.
The painting was purchased by the Government of the Orleanist King Louis Philippe who believing its message incendiary removed it from public view and it wasn’t seen again for 20 years until the establishment of the Second Republic.
Painting the epic he captured the sense not the detail, his portraits were never intended to be the replication of its subject wanting instead to convey the character that lay beneath the facade of the physical being.
It was a style that had a profound effect on the Impressionist artist that would follow him.
As Baudelaire wrote - Delacroix was passionately in love with passion.
Never as popular as Ingres despite from time-to-time returning to the neo-classical style he was perhaps more influential.
Eugene Delacroix died in Paris on 13 August 1863, aged 65, and is buried along with his great rival Ingres in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.