Delacroix’s Obsession with Effect

Exploring how Eugène Delacroix wrestled to achieve unity through the various effects he applied to his canvases.

Eugène Delacroix, Jaguar Attacking a Horseman
Eugène Delacroix, Jaguar Attacking a Horseman, c. 1855, Oil on canvas, 23,5 x 28,5 cm, Národní Galerie, Prague

“This view, in spite of its multiplicity of separate details, seems nevertheless to make a single, unified impression on the mind.” (Journal, p.319) Eugène Delacroix sought in the observation of nature this manifestation of effect. He notes that on his visits to the sea town of Dieppe, that nature always presents an ultimate simplicity of effect where the color, light and details are bound together and harmonized by an over-all unity.

When one, in the early stages of developing an image, attempts to render what is in the mind’s eye, the results exhibit the large movement of the masses and the sweeping compositional lines, the large color notes and the energy of a raw emotion. In the 19th century this was called an étude. It revealed all that the artist intended to capture in the image without detail. It was an image of effect and impact. Delacroix states, “…the general effect inspires an emotion that astonishes even myself. You cannot tear yourself away from it, and no single detail seems to call for special attention from the whole. The perfection of this kind of art lies in creating a simultaneous effect.” (Journal, p.329)

This idea of simultaneous effect is intriguing. But what does he mean? Simultaneous means operating at the same time as well as synchronistically. When things are in sync, there is a harmonious interchange between the various parts. They also appear as a single effect as in music. The sound is singular whether one used a chord or multiple chords underlying the melody. This single, over-arching effect is supported by all the individual notes within the piece.

Analogously, those elements of painting- color, sweeping compositional lines, the beauty of the masses and the emotive touch of the artist, are bound into a harmonious whole through the over-arching effect. When one looks at a painting, no individual part should stand out distinctly alone, but there should be a complete visual effect as well as an emotional response solicited from the image.

Delacroix writes,

“… Bonnington had it, but especially in his hand. His hand was so skilled that it ran ahead of his ideas. He altered his pictures because he had such facility that everything he put on canvas was charming. Yet the details did not always hold together, and his tentative efforts to get back the general effect sometimes caused him to abandon a picture after he had begun it.” (Journal, p.346)

The goal of effect and therefore painting “.. is not a matter of summarizing but of amplifying where it is possible, and of prolonging the sensation by every means.” (Journal, p.214) This is the key to differentiating what in the image is essential and what is just embellishment for its own sake. Delacroix uses an analogy of architecture, “…on the effect of the sketch compared with the finished work. I said the sketch for a picture, the early stages of a great building, a ruin, in fact every work of imagination of which portions are missing, must have a stronger effect on the mind in proportion to what our imaginations have to supply in order to gain an impression of the work.” (Journal, p.192)

This seeking after the large impression subsequently, also has the effect of inviting the imagination of the viewer to take his place within the image, completing it with his own unique imagination.

Our imagination is

“…a faculty that enjoys vagueness, expands freely, and embraces vast objects at the slightest hint. Furthermore, in the matter of the sketch as compared to the final appearance of a great building, the imagination cannot conceive anything very different from the appearance of the final object…”. (Journal, p.216)

So it becomes a delicate balance to find a sense of finish and effect without solidifying the forms to the point where the imagination has no room to expand within the image. This is something that the artist must discover intuitively in the very process of painting. But Delacroix’s experience is always available to us if we spend the time to immerse ourselves in his own personal journey of discovery, a lifetime of trials and errors as well as great feats of technical mastery.

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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