Experience Makes the Master

“Il y avait dans Eugène Delacroix beaucoup du sauvage”  – Charles Baudelaire

Le Retour de Marcus Sextus - Pierre-Narcisse Guérin 1799

Throughout my all-too-brief time at le Louvre, I do not think there was any picture, even ones which I excitedly and adamantly searched for, which struck me quite as profoundly as the above image.  While Delacroix has a number of famous works, which have largely been treated here by the blog posts, I wanted to examine Delacroix on a more personal level, and specifically look into some of his possible inspirational origins.  Thus, in understanding what Baudelaire terms the “savagery” of Delacroix, my heart nor memory could resist including this picture, painted by none other than the man who once took Delacroix (as well as another extremely famous French artist, Géricault) under his wing and trained him as a master painter, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

In considering the above piece, “The Return of Marcus Sextus,” one is immediately put into a place of despair and tragedy.  The mournful, life-weary eyes of Sextus plead for a life with his lost love again – a meaning in the abyss of his agony.  Her cold, limp hand is firmly pressed and intertwined in his gentle grip.  And below, their daughter, with a face contorted by sorrow, holds helplessly onto the legs of her equally helpless father.

Such raw emotion is rare to find in art.  This picture is so raw, in fact, that it already has the capturing awe of any great masterpiece by an emotional appeal alone.  Yet, as Delacroix also shows through his own work, this extreme passion, touching on the very core of the human experience, is perhaps what makes an all-too-refined world find it “savage.”

Yet, it is through this cathartic relief of pure emotions that this style of art achieves its greatest effects.  For, upon making the veil of true feeling and connection so thin for the audience (what many realist artists have tried to do, without success) Guérin, in this case, vivifies the despair of Sextus as a man returned barely too late.  Moreover, by drawing the viewer into such intimate interaction with the piece, the symbolic value of the spiritual composition becomes even more powerful.  For even though it is a work which depicts a scene from antiquity, it is hard to deny the peculiar cross-shape formed by the bodies of Sextus and his wife (profoundly recalling notions of life and death, specifically concerning Jesus Christ), the flow of light coming in from the left side of the picture (a rising or setting sun; a fitting metaphor in both cases), and the Marian posture of the daughter below.  And, as one eager commenter pointed out: “this painting was exhibited at the Salon and excited wild enthusiasm. Part of this was due to the subject–a victim of Sulla’s proscription returning to Rome to find his wife dead and his house in mourning–in which an allusion was found to the turmoil of the French Revolution” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/32357038@N08/4124232028/).  Considering the many atrocities committed during the Reign of Terror in France, Guérin may have felt, just as Sextus, the heart-wrenching grief of watching his beloved (country) go through the painful process of such a violent changing of hands.  Such an idea makes for an interesting comparison with Delacroix’s La Révolution, for example.

Thus, Delacroix’s array of work, which includes a great number of masterpieces already well-covered by my peers, also bears a very similar thematic progression of dramatic appeal through the swirling passions of brutality, violence, grief, etc.

In this image of a tiger attacking a horse, for example, the idea of France as a state severed and ravaged by its violent blood lust rings just as strongly as in “The Return of Sextus.”  The fact that the treachery has been reduced to animals is also a striking feature; especially when considering that the horse and the tiger are two creatures which presumably would never naturally encounter one another.  The horse is invigorated with pain, his noble, harmless nature shocked by a ferocious bite.  Again, there is a richness of imagery to be explored in this scene in contrast to the French Revolution.

Thus, when considering Delacroix, one must not forgot his roots in Guérin, who did, I believe, in unison with the calling of the times, establish a strong precedent for the “savage” style of Delacroix’s works.

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