The Journals of Eugene Delacroix

March 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Eugene Delacroix and Jean Dominique Ingres

In his recent article for the Huffington Post, John Seed comments on the persistence of a “feud” that first reared its head in 19th century Paris between two of the greatest painters then living, Jean Dominique Ingres, and Eugene Delacroix. Ingres’ god was Raphael, and the cool, classicizing illusionism of the high Renaissance. Delacroix, a capital R Romantic, championed the more painterly traditions embodied by artists like Titian. For Ingres, drawing was “the probity of art;” for Delacroix, it was color. Ingres, as a matter of finish, defaced his brush marks into a smooth, refined sheen, while Delacroix gloried in the movements and tracks that his hand left in the paint. Delacroix proclaimed that one day the world would see that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Raphael.  And so arose the feud between rival allegiances that was really a feud about ways of thinking about painting, a feud so famous in Paris that it was caricatured by Honore Daumier in this cartoon from a periodical of the day.

The above is prologue to what this post is really about, the journals that Delacroix began keeping  when he was about 24 years of age. He kept the journals for most of his 64 years of age, chronicling his thoughts, his projects, his relationships with composers, writers, critics, statesmen, and other intellectuals of the period. When I was a young art student I got myself a copy of Delacroix’s journals, wanting to find a model, a guide, for this strange career I was embarking on. At any age, or at any stage of one’s development as an artist, I have found, Delacroix’s words will resonate. The times and the fashions have changed but, as John Seed argues, the tension between these two value systems in artistic creation are so fundamental, like “yin and yang,” as he puts it, that they are still with us today.  Delacroix’s writing is clear, at times lofty and philosophical, and just as often, practical and down-to-earth. It is always touchingly human.

This is Delacroix’s first entry in his new project, made on a Tuesday in September, 1822:

“I am beginning my Journal; the Journal I have so often planned to write. My keenest wish is to remember that I am writing only for myself; this will keep me truthful, I hope, and it will do me good. These pages will reproach me for my instability. I am beginning in good spirits…”

Have you ever found yourself feeling defensive about being an artist when someone insinuates that it’s not a serious vocation, or that it’s frivolous or decadent to pursue art when there’s so much wrong with the world? Or that art is intellectually suspect compared to science or other disciplines?

“When I have painted a fine picture I have not given expression to a thought! That is what they say. What fools people are! They would strip painting of all its advantages. A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder. The beholder see figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men… The art of  the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material. In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone…”

Maybe you have admired a colleague’s progress while struggling with some difficult passage in your own painting?

Tuesday, October 22:

“This evening I again admired Reisener’s little portrait… I should like to have painted it myself, and yet I wouldn’t change what I can do for that, but I wish I had his simplicity. It always seems to me so difficult to paint the eyes – the space between the upper eyelid and the eyebrow – without making the work look laboured..”

Have you ever reproached yourself for your perceived flaws or failures as a painter?

October 12, 1822:

“I am afraid I lack patience. I should be a different man if I had the staying power of some of the people I know. I’m always in too much of a hurry to get results.”

October 22:

“I’ve not enough self-control… I don’t observe closely enough before beginning to paint…”

How little actually changes from century to century:

October 12, 1822:

“Charles, Piron and I dined together. Then to the Theatre des Italiens. What a delicious thrill they give me, these women with their charms and graces! All these divine things that I can see but never possess make me feel glad and sorry at the same time!”

Link to John Seed’s article in the Huffington Post: “Painterly vs. Precise: 20 Artists, 20 Studio Visits.”


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