Delacroix- From Experience to Theory and Back

oil sketch "After Delacroix"
oil sketch “After Delacroix”

Reading about color theory is quite a dry experience which I engage in periodically because I am always on the look out for a new approach to enhance my own understanding of painting. Most of it is so rational and system based, reflecting the 19th century academic approach, that one wonders if they have truly engaged in observation for its own sake- because it is beautiful in itself and should be the basis of one’s engagement with the world. I am not saying that there should not be a practical system, that can be taught, in order that observation as well as a scientific knowledge of color and its effect on the visual field can be translated and advanced. But “life” itself must be the goal of all engagement. As soon as this is disregarded, the work loses its efficacy and becomes dead. Hence, the predicament of academic painting in the 19th century as well as much of modern art.

But when I read the Journals of Eugene Delacroix, I am once again inspired by his vital approach to “living” and how all painting must spring from this intense engagement with life. Delacroix is the modernist that one should look to. Baudelaire hailed him as the true modernist because he was able to translate his “illimitable” experience to paint, expressing an imaginative dream- like state where his experience in the world merges with the expanse of his imagination.

Delacroix was a “keen” observer of the world around him and through that constant approach to life he finds ways to enhance and activate his work in the studio as well as his grand murals which depend on his imaginative genius.

“During a walk…I noticed some extraordinary effects. It was sunset; the chrome and lake tones were most brilliant on the side where it was light and the shadows were extraordinarily blue and cold. And in the same way, the shadows thrown by the trees, which were all yellow and directly lit by the sun’s rays, stood out against part of the grey clouds which were verging on blue. It would seem that the warmer the lighter tones, the more nature exaggerates the contrasting grey…What made this effect appear so vivid in the landscape was precisely this law of contrast. The general rule is, the greater the contrast, the more brilliant the effect.”(Journal,p.146)

This observation, where the compliment to a color emerges from a neutral tone, had not yet been thoroughly discussed by French artists. It was not until Michel-Eugene Chevreul’s essays on color that it became a part of the artist’s toolbox. Delacroix trusts his observation and transforms it into a possible effect for his own painting. His mind always set upon the emerging work.

In the Journal, Delacroix allows his imagination to flow between the sensate world and those interior movements of soul that speak on another plane. The artist is the bridge that binds those two opposing movements. “To imagine a composition is to combine elements one knows with others that spring from the inner being of the artist. Then from a well- stored memory forms are brought to an apparent reality.” (Ibid.,p.21) The artist binds together those experiences and transforms them into the vision that forms the work. “Whatever his apparent subject, it is always himself that the artist paints. Subject merely exalts his inner feeling”. (Ibid.)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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