Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art by Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle (National Gallery)

Book Review : Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art by Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle (National Gallery)

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Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art by Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited in association with Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2015.

Patrick Noon in the prologue to this book states that ‘Modern Art History has perpetuated the fiction that modern painting commenced sui generis in France with the Salon des Refusés of 1863, the special exhibition of works by Édouard Manet and others who had been refused admission that year to the state sponsored annual exhibition in Paris of living French artists.” Noon argues that the principal characteristics associated with modernism were actually in evidence at the start of the nineteenth century especially amongst artists from the British and French Romanticism schools which included Theodore Gericault, J.M.W.Turner, Richard Parkes Bonington and Eugene Delacroix.

It is the influence of Eugene Delacroix that is the focus of the exhibition and book and the chapter entitled ‘What is Delacroix’ explores the artist’s life and career. Delacroix was born into a wealthy and influential family in 1798 and was bought up in times of great uncertainty within the French state. It was at this time that the stability and ideas of Great Britain were influential and Delacroix was inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Walter Scott. Orphaned at sixteen, Delacroix abandoned his classical studies at the  Lycée Impérial to pursue a less academic training, he gained significant insights by studying the old masters in the Musee du Louvre.

Remarkably, Delacroix’s first publicly exhibited picture, The Barque of Dante (1822) not only established his reputation but also divided opinion which would become a reoccurring theme throughout his career. A visit to London in 1825 led Delacroix to appreciate the work of British artists and the cultural influence of Shakespeare and Lord Byron. It was the death of Byron that inspired The Death of Sardanapalus which was exhibited in 1827. This work marked out a distinctive rejection by Delacroix of the French art establishment, Noon summarises Delacroix’s position ‘ the conventional formulas of French painting so defended by conservative critics were valueless if the artist’s imagination did not touch that of the viewer’.

However, fate was in Delacroix’s favour, when the 1830 July Revolution in Paris bought forth a more liberal regime and an invitation to travel with a government delegation to Morocco in 1832. This was a trip that made a great impression on the artist who would return to his North African adventures for the next three decades for inspiration for over eighty oil paintings. The artist welcomed the interval between witnessing the scene and painting, it meant that he could only recall the most striking and poetic aspect. Towards the end of the his career, Delacroix used his artistic imagination across a range of subjects including still life, landscapes, religious and literary subjects.

Central to the authors argument that Delacroix was one of the ‘fathers’ of modern art is providing evidence of his influence and inspiration on the artists of the subsequent generations. One of the authors, Christopher Riopelle explores this legacy in the chapter entitled Afterlife, when Delacroix died in 1863, one of his greatest supporters, Charles Baudelaire prophesied that the artist renown would continue long after his death. Riopelle points out that ‘ the reassessment of Delacroix’s legacy began in the immediate aftermath of his funeral’ when Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour  painted ‘Homage to Delacroix’ in which Fantin-Latour places himself alongside artists and writers grouped around Delacroix’s portrait. The painting from 1864 features Edouard Manet, Charles Baudelaire, James Abbott McNeill Whistler,  Alphonse Legros amongst others. Posthumous displays of his work, the sale of his studio contents and the publication of his ‘Journal’ added greatly to the artist’s legacy that permeated into the work of a number of late 19th- and early 20th-century painters that are associated with the rise of modern art.

The remaining chapters in the book explore the way that many of the ‘modern artists’ were quick to acknowledge their debt to Delacroix. Whilst Cézanne declared “We all paint in Delacroix’s language”, the authors of the book point out ‘the sincerest forms of respect that one artist can exhibit for another are extolling aspects of their professional persona; copying and collecting their paintings; or referencing a celebrated work in one of their own creations”. Cézanne’s The Apotheosis of Delacroix, Manet’s copy of The Barque of Dante, Gauguin’s Still Life with a sketch after Delacroix and Van Gogh’s Pieta ( after Delacroix ) are just a few examples in the book and exhibition that provide evidence of Delacroix’s influence. In some cases it was not just the paintings, Renoir followed in the footsteps of the artist by visiting North Africa in 1881 and painting a large-scale copy of the Jewish Wedding in Morocco.

Both the exhibition and the book provide important  insights into aspects of Delacroix’s career and his artistic legacy, the authors offer plenty of evidence that supports their thesis of the importance of Delacroix in the development of modern art. This well written and authoritative book is full of stunning full colour illustrations that show the importance of Delacroix’s use of colour and form to recreate the sensations experienced from nature. It is this colour and form that provided inspiration for a large number of ‘modern’ artists who would change the art world forever.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the National Gallery website here

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