Eugene Delacroix, Collision of Moorish Horsemen, 1843–44. Oil on canvas. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland (37.6, acquired by William T. Walters, 1883).

SANTA BARBARA, CA.- This important and beautiful international loan exhibition marks the first presentation on the celebrated French artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) in the United States in over a decade, and the first major monographic show devoted to the Romantic artist on the West coast. Featuring 27 paintings and 18 works on paper, the exhibition also showcases a previously unknown and unpublished version of Delacroix’s dramatic masterpiece, The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, which recently surfaced in a Santa Barbara private collection. After several years of scholarly and technical study, the painting has now been authenticated by Santa Barbara Museum of Art Assistant Director and Chief Curator, Eik Kahng. 

Delacroix is typically associated with Romanticism and thought of as its primary exponent ― i.e. the leader of an art movement that dominated French painting in the first half of the 19th century, characterized by the representation of extreme states of emotion through an expressive use of bold color in dynamic compositions. The artist’s most beloved images include the so-called “Orientalist” pictures, featuring exotic subjects such as The Fanatics of Tangier , featured in the exhibition, as well as his more overtly political allegories, the most famous of which is Liberty On the Barricades (1830–31, Musée du Louvre). Yet the artist was also drawn to dramatic moments in Greek and Roman history, and demonstrated a life-long fascination with the Stoic Roman philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius. 

Delacroix’s allegiance to classical subjects was the consequence of his deep admiration for the greatest art of the past, which the ambitious artist strove to surpass, especially in his public, large-scale decorations. At the same time, his restless search for the technical means to convey the vividness of the hallucinatory scenes of human drama played out in his mind’s inner eye―whether plucked from the pages of history, Homer, or the poetry of Lord Byron―make him one of the most innovative artists of the 19th century.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, curator Eik Kahng offers an extensive iconographic study of the sources for the subject of The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, thereby reassessing the artist’s relationship to Romanticism’s supposed antithesis, Neoclassicism, and to artists such as Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) and Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), painters with whom Delacroix is not often compared.

Plate 18 Delacroix, Winter Juno and Aeolus, color corrected loresProblems of attribution have long plagued Delacroix studies, particularly given the artist’s reliance on students as collaborators to support the most ambitious of public commissions, which included vast decorative cycles for the ceiling and walls of the Palais Bourbon and the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. Delacroix and the Matter of Finish is the first exhibition to invite side-by-side comparison between Delacroix’s paintings and the so-called “sketch-copies” by his closest students, Pierre Andrieu (1849–1935) and Louis de Planet (1814–1876), revealing a gulf in technical skill . The exhibition also offers a snapshot of the evolution of Delacroix’s painterly touch over the course of his rich career, from the relatively tight brushwork of Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to his Daughters (ca. 1827-28, Kunsthaus Zürich) to the explosive and almost abstract colorism of the last decades, as instanced by Winter. The artist’s willingness to allow for the “completion” of his “rough” painterly idea in the imagination of the viewer is a hallmark of the Romantic aesthetic and yet another play on the various connotations of the word “finish” in the exhibition’s title. 

This exhibition, conceived by Dr. Kahng, is scheduled to travel to the Birmingham Museum of Art (on view February 23 – May 18, 2014) and represents the only other venue for the show. The 27 lenders for this exhibition include museums and private collectors throughout America, as well as distinguished institutions in Canada and Europe, including the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Honolulu Museum of Art; the Kunsthaus Zürich; the Kunstmuseum Basel; the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon; the Musée du Vieux-Toulouse; the Musée national Eugène Delacroix, Paris; the Musée Fabre, Montpellier; and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. 


Eugène Delacroix, Winter: Juno and Aeolus, oil sketch, 1856. Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 19 5/8 in. Private Collection.