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.

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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