A legendary rivalry existed between the two megastars of nineteenth-century French painting: the arch-Romantic Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)—the subject of an exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum, through November 12—and the inveterate classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).1 But on one thing they agreed: Drawing is the essential foundation of art.
As Ingres famously declared, “Drawing is the probity of art.”2 Delacroix’s verbal acknowledgment of that central fact was less direct. “Colour always occupies me,” he once confided, “but drawing preoccupies me.” His conviction regarding the fundamentality of drawing to his art was evident in practice, however, as the Met’s show demonstrates.
Entitled Devotion to Drawing, the exhibition presents 130 drawings from the Karen B. Cohen Collection. The collection (promised as a gift to the museum) includes diverse examples of Delacroix’s lifelong and wide-ranging engagement with graphic art.
Often Surprising Models
There is nothing remarkable about the exhibition’s first image—a typically academic male nude drawn from life by the young Delacroix as a student under Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.
What is surprising is that the artist frequently turned to classical models in later years, even after his own much freer style had evolved. He made drawings not only of antique sculptures and coins but also after prints of ancient reliefs. And while he had the greatest stylistic affinity with the baroque master Rubens—in whose work he saw “expression carried to the utmost limit” (as in The Drunken Silenus and the Adoration of the Magi)—he also admired the classical “perfection of drawing, grace, and composition” he found in Raphael, as attested by several drawings after prints of the latter’s work. In his copying, Delacroix rarely drew entire compositions. In the example shown here, he selected three male figures and a group of women and children from four different Raphael frescoes for the Vatican. Using reproductive prints as his direct source, he copied freely, adapting the engraving into his own drawing style. In the curator’s view, the isolation of these figures from their context suggests he was mainly interested in their various poses.
More fuel for Delacroix’s fertile imagination came from drawings based on countless other sources, ranging from English caricatures and medieval arms and tomb effigies to wild animals at the zoo, picturesque scenes from his travels, and flayed cadavers. In addition, he continually used drawings as the basis for important commissions and projects, from works of religious art to ambitious series of lithographs illustrating literary classics such as Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
All in all, Delacroix’s example merits emulation by today’s would-be artists and art teachers, too many of whom have forgotten that drawing is indeed the foundation of visual art. A notorious example is Damien Hirst—one of today’s leading “artists”—who declared in an interview with talk show host Charlie Rose that the one thing he regretted being unable to do in his work is “represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface.” Nonetheless, he has the chutzpah to call himself an artist, and the artworld lionizes him as such—along with unthinking journalists like Rose, who fawningly follow suit. Would that this exhibition might prompt some rethinking on that score!
- See “Ingres vs Delacroix: An artistic rivalry spills over at a party,” The Artstor Blog, June 17, 2012. ↩
- Significantly, Ingres added: “To draw does not mean simply to reproduce contours; drawing does not consist merely of line: drawing is also expression, the inner form, the plane, modeling.” Probité, the French term used by him, could also be translated as “integrity” or “truth.” ↩