Childhood & Early Life
He was born at Charenton-Saint-Maurice on April 26, 1798, in Île-de-France, in the family of Charles-François Delacroix and Victoire Oeben though certain reasons point out that his biological father was Talleyrand, a family friend.
Charles-François Delacroix was a Minister of Foreign Affairs and worked as governmental prefect in Bordeaux and in Marseilles. Eugène’s mother infused in him the love for art and literature. Charles died in 1805 and Victoire died in 1814 leaving him as an orphan. Talleyrand succeeded Charles as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later served the Restoration and the King, Louis-Philippe and finally became an ambassador of France in Great Britain. Talleyrand protected Eugène all through in his career as a painter.
He attended the ‘Lycée Louis-le-Grand’ school in Paris and the ‘Lycée Pierre Corneille’ school in Rouen. He showed great interest in art and literature and won many awards for his drawings.
In 1815 he started learning the neoclassical style of eminent French painter Jacques-Louis David under the guidance of academic painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.
In 1816 he joined one of the distinguished art schools of France, ‘École des Beaux-Arts’ in Paris.
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He was inspired by the works of Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens, influence of whom was visible in many of his early works. Religious subject matters were reflected through many of his paintings.
He was also inspired by the works of Théodore Géricault, a fellow French artist who was considered one of the pioneers of Romanticism in art. ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, a masterpiece of Théodore Géricault had a great impact on Delacroix.
His first major work ‘The Barque of Dante’ also referred as ‘Dante and Virgil in Hell’ was inspired from the epic poem of Dante Alighieri, the ‘Divine Comedy’. The painting was exhibited at the prestigious ‘Paris Salon’ in 1822 and was considered one of the forerunners for the augmentation of the Romantic Movement. Though the work was scoffed off in general, the state purchased it for the ‘Luxembourg Galleries’.
In 1822 he became in-charge of architectural decorations with the aid of statesman and historian Adolphe Thiers.
He knew Antoine-Jean Gros, the famous historical painter and also the neoclassical painter Baron François Gérard. He was inspired by his friends Frédéric Chopin, a pianist, Richard Parkes Bonington, an English painter and George Sand, a French writer.
Many of his paintings of the 1820s reflect recent historical events including the Greek War of Independence and its atrocities. Two such paintings are ‘The Massacre at Chios’ produced in 1824 and the ‘Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi’ produced in 1826. Impact of extreme emotion, conflicts and violence were profound in his works that varied on different subjects including history and literature and were marked with use of bold colors and vivid brushstrokes.
He was fascinated by the English landscape paintings and in 1825 he travelled England and came across many eminent artists including Joseph Mallord William Turner, Richard Parkes Bonington and Thomas Lawrence. He studied the techniques of such English painters and developed his skills during this time.
During this time he also produced numerous romantic arts of varied themes. One such prominent work of Delacroix was ‘Death of Sardanapalus’ inspired from a play by Byron, created between 1827 and 1828. Display of intense emotion and tragedy and use of vivid colors featuring exotic costumes dominated the painting. It was not exhibited for many years and was later tagged by many critics as gruesome imagination combining lust and death.
He also delved into creating lithographs from the tragic play of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘Faust’ and from Shakespeare.
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His next major painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’, produced in 1830 was a portrayal of the French Revolution. Through this painting he seemed to convey the spirit of freedom, fraternity and equality that prevailed among the people of Paris during the revolution. The painting that was bought by the government of France in 1831 brought out a change in his style with a quieter tone. This painting was also removed from public view until Louis Napoleon, the newly elected President displayed it.
In 1832 he travelled North Africa in Morocco and Algeria. Basically on a diplomatic mission he had the opportunity to have an insider’s look of the locals which mesmerised him. He was introduced to a culture that differed vastly from French life. The lifestyle, culture, dress sense and interests of the people and their women fascinated him that changed his work of art. He extensively used Moroccan subjects and themes in his art for the rest of his life.
Some of his noted works inspired by the new world he encountered includes ‘Women of Algiers in their apartment’ in 1834, ‘Jewish Wedding in Morocco’ from 1837 to 1841, Arab Saddling his Horse in 1855 and Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable in 1860.
Starting from 1833 he worked on a larger scale after receiving several commissions to paint murals on walls and ceilings of public buildings in Paris. His works include Salon du Roi in the Chambre des Députés, Palais Bourbon (1833 – 1837), Library at the Palais du Luxembourg and Library at the Palais Bourbon (1838 to approx. 1848), Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement (1843) and ceiling of ‘Galerie d'Apollon’ of the Louvre (1848-1850) among others.
His painting ‘Medea about to Kill Her Children’ inspired from Greek mythology became a sensation. The painting which was exhibited in Salon in 1838 was later purchased by the State and sent to the Lille Musée des Beaux-Arts.
He was one of the members of the ‘Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts’. The society which was chaired by his friend, writer Théophile Gautier and Aimé Millet serving as deputy chairman was formed in 1862. It was composed of several painters and exhibitors. The society arranged for a retrospective exhibition of Delacroix’s paintings and lithographs after his death in 1864.