Delacroix’s Calculated Lapses

By emphasizing some details and ignoring others, Delacroix developed an approached that intentionally left areas of his compositions in varying degrees of finish.

Eugene Delacroix, Tiger Hunt
Eugene Delacroix, Tiger Hunt

This winter I am rereading Delacroix’s Journal (Phaidon). Every time I read the Journal I find more jewels. It has helped me to re-evaluate my painting and what it means to actually complete a piece. This is one of the most difficult tasks. One wants a balance between a sense of finish while also allowing for the vigor of the initial lay-in to be felt as well as all those spontaneous touches that relay an emotional intensity. It is a balance that needs to be constantly re-evaluated so there is continual personal growth in the artists’ technique and his ability to bring his ideas to fruition.

This time reading the journal I found that Delacroix muses over many years on what it means to complete an image. He compares Rubens and Rembrandt, the two artists he most admired. Rubens tended in his larger pieces, to complete the image fully, in every corner, exhibiting his skill with the figures and horses as well as the most minute details such as a belt buckle or sword hilt. Whereas, Rembrandt tended to create a visual hierarchy, completing things in order of importance to the visual impact.

Delacroix searched for a compromise between these two methods. He called it calculated lapses. This was the artists ability to leave certain parts of the image less complete without detracting from the force of the over-all visual sweep. Although Rubens’ work is highly finished, Rubens found room for these kinds of lapses. Delacroix states again and again in the journal that sacrifices must be made. An unsuccessful painting is one that, “…never contains those omissions, those sacrifices made for the sake of relaxation and enjoyment, which give serenity to the effect and allow our eyes to travel easily over the composition.” (June 6, 1851)

These lapses are not errors or misjudgments of form or color. Calculated lapses refer to the artists ability to subject the rendering of forms and the accuracy of details  to the necessary supremacy of the image. All things must align within the image to heighten the emotional content and the visual effect.

Delacroix states,

“The first idea, the sketch- the egg or embryo of the idea, so to speak- is nearly always far from complete; everything is there, if you like, but this everything has to be released, which simply means joining up the various parts. The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else in making the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore, when it comes to tackling the picture is this subordination of details which nevertheless, make up the composition and are the very warp and weft of the picture itself.” (April, 23 1854)

When too much attention is given, “…to each separate object, (the objects and the entire image) become lost in a general confusion, and an execution that seemed precise and suitable becomes dryness itself because of the total absence of sacrifices.” (Ibid) I find that when I am working with a model in the studio, I am drawn to certain aspects of the figure that are individual. I can, many times, make this work with the larger conception. But there are also many times where I need to sacrifice these details to carry the emotional intensity and flow of the composition. These details are always halting. The viewer stutters over their specificity. It is the artist’s power of conception, being true to the source of the inspiration, the ideal, to sacrifice anything that inhibits its authentic manifestation.

“A great painter concentrates the interest by suppressing the details that are useless, offensive, or foolish; his mighty hand orders and prescribes, adding to or taking away from the objects in his pictures, and treating them as his own creatures; he ranges freely throughout his kingdom and gives you a feast of his own choosing…” (April 28,1854)

It is these very calculated lapses that allow the imagination full reign to enter into an image, participate imaginally in its completion and come away transformed by it.

Late Works

Oil on canvas.
Image via Wikipedia

One thing that always captures my imagination is the last images produced by an artist. One never knows when one’s end will come, yet it is revealing to see the work produced by an artist in the last couple of years. There is almost a premonition of the end. I often think of Rembrandt’s late self portraits, especially the image of him in the dirty smock and white hat with his grey hair long and unkempt flowing from underneath (Self Portrait with Two Circles,1669, London). He looks frankly at himself. There are no illusions anymore. No whims or fancies to be sought after. There is only what is before him- a man. All that was in the periphery has slipped away and what remains is the essential- the elemental. One of Robert Creeley’s last poems, Here begins,

Up a hill and down again.
Around and in-

Out was what it was all about
but now it’s done.

At the end was the beginning,
st like it said or someone did.

Keep looking, keep looking,
keep looking.

Creeley’s emphatic advice “to keep looking, keep looking” seems to be at the heart of what attracts me to these works. Frans Hal’s late portraits, produced when he no longer had any money or loyal patrons, express his inherent desire to look squarely at his subject and peer into its deepest recesses. He no longer produced to receive favors and fame but painted because he had to- to verify his existence and those around him. Robert Henri’s late portraits of children are striking for their minimalism. He strives to paint only as long as it takes to capture the essence and character of the individual. There is no fancy brush work, no attempt to finish. The child in his or her simplicity rises up from the encounter and speaks quietly and beautifully about the meaning of existence and the nature of being. Poetry that is profound, simple and essential.

There is a deep sense of responsibility in these late works. A responsibility to the unique vision that had been granted to each artist. Sometimes there is regret too. And this itself adds to the profoundness that we feel before these works. In a sense we identify with the artist and recognize our similarities and our frailties as part of our shared human nature. Manet’s late small paintings of flowers produced when he could no longer get out of bed speak of a simple desire to see, to look and to look again. A desire to take all that beauty with him- to embrace it and never let it go.

After School

We’d set off into the woods
and would climb trees there
and throw things, shouting
at one another, great shrieking
cries I remember- or would, if
I dreamt- in dreams. In dreams,
the poet wrote, begin responsibilities.
I thought that was like going to
some wondrous place and all was
waiting there just for you to come
and do what had to be done.
(Robert Creeley,On Earth, 2005)