Review: Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at the National Gallery

This exploration of Delacroix’s influence promises to be one of the biggest exhibitions in the capital this year. Does it deliver the goods?

Delecroix exhibition

Right: Standing Nude, about 1898 by Paul Cézanne. Left: Bathers, 1854 by Eugene Delacroix

London’s National Gallery is the second most popular visitor attraction in Britain (after the British Museum) with over 6 million people a year flooding through its colonnaded entrance on Trafalgar Square.

But far fewer people will go through the doors of the smart building immediately next door – the gallery’s Sainsbury wing.

Most of the National Gallery is rightly thrown over to displaying the best of the state art collection, which means that though the gallery has significant leverage in the art world, many of the world-class exhibitions it hosts are secreted underground and away from the effulgent public halls visitors usually see.

This is a bit of a shame. But any negativity about the gallery’s new Delacroix exhibition ends there.

Visitors are treated to a fascinating narrative journey through Delacroix’s impact on those who knew him and who followed him.

In part you follow the classic story of the French artist, in which Delacroix experiences occasional rejection and frustration at the hands of the all-powerful Salon Paris, and we also see the dazzling freedom and experimentation that made him seem exotic and dangerous to the public at the time.

Delacroix was fascinated by poets including Byron and Baudelaire. His own trips to North Africa allowed him to visualise Byron’s poetry, in the form of audacious oriental scenes and classical subject matter.

And there are a lot of Delacroix’s works to see. Over a third of the paintings on display are by Delacroix himself, beginning with his striking 1837 Self Portrait, on loan from the Louvre.

Paul Cézanne is particularly well represented, and the exhibition features a jewel in the form of his 1890s landscape The Apotheosis of Delacroix – a brightly colourful picture featuring the art collector Chocquet, along with Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Cézanne himself. Meanwhile, floating half naked in the clouds is the reclining form of Delacroix, while all the artists below hold their hands up in worshipful supplication. This one picture sums up the point of the exhibition well.

Van Gogh Olive Trees

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees

But there is much more. Three Van Gogh’s that are never normally in the National Gallery are here – they haven’t pilfered their own collection – and there are at least three Gaugin pictures too. Delacroix’s influence pervades them all.

Included is Van Gogh’s own take of a Delacroix painting, Pieta, in which Van Gogh, without a colour reproduction of Delacroix’s original, took a wild guess at the colours, and came up with something wonderful.

Gaugin’s own homage to Delacroix takes the form of a still life that features a Delacroix reproduction hanging in the background.

The objectives of this exhibition are unambiguously met. Again and again, Delacroix’s influence over the impressionists and post-impressionists is demonstrated. This in turn proves how his power continues to shape our understanding of art today.

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