Delacroix Drawings at The Met

By Peggy Roalf   Friday September 28, 2018

"If you're not able to sketch a man who throws himself out of the window in the time it takes him to fall from the fourth floor to the ground, you'll never be able to produce great paintings." –Eugène  Delacroix (1798-1863)

For artists committed to keeping a sketchbook—perhaps even more so for those who struggle in this—the current exhibitions on Eugène Delacroix at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a revelation.

The leading exponent of Romanticism in French art, who made radical departures from academic painting through his turbulent style of mark making, Delacroix was also an extraordinary draftsman, sketchbook- and journal-keeper. But these drawings were done for his personal development and which he studiously kept private. The more than 8,000 drawings and watercolors discovered in his rue Furstenberg studio after his death revealed another dynamic aspect of his process and temperament. Currently on view at The Met, in galleries adjacent to the retrospective exhibition, Delacroix, is a selection of more than 100 works on paper from the Karen B. Cohen Collection. 

The Agony in the Garden, 1823-24; Brush and brown wash over graphite; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Cover and pages from the Normandy sketchbook, 1829; graphite and watercolor on wove paper; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Study for The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage, 1832-33; brush and brown ink; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Delacroix’s subject matter was largely drawn from literature: from Biblical narratives, the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Lord Byron and the stories of Sir Walter Scott. Working from his imaginative visualization of literary tales, he brought the excitement of deadly encounters to life on canvas. His aim was to draw the viewer into situations that they would never experience, and give them a thrill. But the sense of realism in those painted encounters came from his highly disciplined  practice of drawing from life—in the streets, in the countryside, on his travels, in his studio. In his studio he worked from paid models, and [it has been said] from heads severed by the guillotine; in the streets he observed and sketched people of all classes, and horses at the stables, in the streets, as well as dead horses at the animal morgue of Paris; on his travels to North Africa, in 1832, he sketched constantly, creating a visual diary he referred to over the remaining years of his career. 


Crouching Tiger, 1839; pen and brush and iron gall ink; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (the acknowledged expert on this artist), wrote that Delacroix’s savage brushstrokes “escaped the tyranny of lines.” He promoted the artist’s mission to create an artistic truth that emanated from his ability to establish a reciprocal gaze between the painting, its painter and the viewer, rather than the omniscient authorial gaze prevalent in European art. Baudelaire wrote, “[Delacroix’s] lifelong preoccupation was to work quickly enough and with enough certainty that none of the intensity of the action of the idea could evaporate.” The drawings, sketchbooks, lithographs, watercolors, pastels—even the original journals kept by Delacroix—presented in these two exhibitions, offer proof of Baudelaire's observations.

Details from works on paper in the painting show; photos © Peggy Roalf

Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection continues through November 12, 2018, and is accompanied by a complete catalog of works, with essays that examine the essential role of drawing in Delacroix’s artistic practice. Info

Delacroix, a joint project with the Musée du Louvre presenting more than 150 paintings, works on paper, and journals, continues through January 6, 2019, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY Info

My review of Delacroix at The Met is here  MP031019