If you think Eugene Delacroix is the name of a hot new French chef, don’t feel lonely. Most folks don’t know the name either.
To introduce our region to the celebrated artist recognized today as “the father of Impressionism,” the Birmingham Museum of Art has mounted a new exhibit: “Delacroix and the Matter of Finish.”
Showcasing works from five countries and 10 U.S. cities, it presents a stunning collection of his range. The first Delacroix exhibition in the states in more than 10 years, it began at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and ends May 18 at the Birmingham Museum.
Quick quiz: Which well-known artists was NOT influenced by Delacroix’s imaginative genius: Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Manet or Picasso?
Trick question. They all were.
While Delacroix (1798-1863) doesn’t have rock star name recognition, he bridges the artistic eras of Romanticism, known for colorful expressive works about the human condition, and Impressionism, with its imaginative loose brushwork conveying the effects of light. Beloved as the epitome of impassioned French Romanticism, Delacroix’s vibrant palette and bold brushstrokes also served as touchstones for many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
“Degas, Manet and Cezanne literally copied his works,” said the new BMA curator of European art, Dr. Robert Schindler. Coming from a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Schindler enhanced the exhibit by adding wall text with enlightening info.
Need an added attraction?
Making its public debut on this tour is a previously unknown and newly authenticated Delacroix painting, “The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius.” Vetted by experts for more than three years, the easel-sized painting of this tragic moment was the catalyst for BMA show. An earlier version of the painting hangs at the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts in France. It can’t travel, but a large digital reproduction hangs opposite the featured oil in Birmingham.
Study the two pictures. Don’t miss the subtle lighting changes and the difference in Delacroix’s depictions of Marcus Aurelius’ son.
Look for drama. Walk through all the galleries quickly after your arrival to get a feel for the exhibit, then return to the entrance. You now know that Delacroix was a master colorist who focused on dramatic situations. His paintings grab you and pull you into the moment.
Don’t stand too long in front of “Christ on the Sea of Galilee” — you might get seasick. Delacroix places you in that very uncontrolled small craft amid the panic-stricken disciples and straining rowers. You can almost hear the wind and feel the boat’s fragility amid the turbulent waves. Find the only note of calm — the sleeping Christ.
Look for exotic works. When he was 34, Delacroix spent six months in North Africa, an experience that forever inspired him to paint the cultural history of the North African people with chromatic complexity and high drama.
These “Orientalist” paintings often are visitors’ favorites. In his dynamic “Collision of the Moorish Horsemen,” Delacroix delivers almost audible battle sounds, horses fiercely reared in the melee and the riders’ intensity, all amid swirls of gritty dust in a luminous sky.
Look for changing brushwork. Notice how Delacroix’s technique changes and his brushwork becomes looser, rendering less-detailed subjects. Instead of photographic images, he paints the essence of a scene, which took guts in an era that valued ideal beauty. Critics often described these works as “unfinished.”
Always controversial, Delacroix’s pops of pure pigment open up his paintings. Both “Winter: Juno and Aeolus” and “Spring: Orpheus and Eurydice” are very Impressionistic. Monet himself might have painted the flower bush in the right foreground of “Spring.”
Look for lithographs. A big fan of the literary world, particularly Shakespeare, Delacroix became an accomplished lithographer when the black-and-white medium was comparatively new. His “Hamlet” lithograph suite boasts its own gallery — not because of the play’s costume display or narrative, but because each of the 16 scenes depict a character’s theatrical response to a pivotal moment such as Hamlet fighting frantically to follow his father’s ghost. The critics trashed the psychological nuances of Delacroix’s endeavor. Not until after his death was he credited with his brilliant contributions to lithography.
As you exit this relatively small exhibit of one of the 19th century’s greatest French artists, salute the wall text by critic and art historian Theophile Silvestre. He summed up Delacroix as “a painter of noble lineage, who carried a sun in his head and storms in his heart, who for 40 years played upon the keyboard of human passions, and whose brush — grandiose, terrifying, or tender — passed from saints to warriors, from warriors to lovers, from lovers to tigers, and from tigers to flowers.”
IF YOU GO...
WHAT: Delacroix and the Matter of Finish
WHERE: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd.
WHEN: Showing now through May 18; museum open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
COST: General admission to museum is free, Delacroix exhibit is $15.
INFO: Online visit artsbma.org, or call 205-254-2565.