The Artist Birthday Series

Eugène Delacroix

Today’s Artist Birthday: Eugène Delacroix

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. His use of expressive brushstrokes and his study of the optical effects of color profoundly shaped the work of the Impressionists, while his passion for the exotic inspired the artists of the Symbolist movement. In contrast to the Neoclassical perfectionism of his chief rival Ingres, Delacroix took for his inspiration the art of Rubens and painters of the Venetian Renaissance, with an attendant emphasis on color and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modeled form. Friend and spiritual heir to Théodore Géricault, Delacroix was also inspired by Lord Byron, with whom he shared a strong identification with the “forces of the sublime”, of nature in often violent action. However, Delacroix was given to neither sentimentality nor bombast, and his Romanticism was that of an individualist. In the words of Baudelaire, “Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible.”

Portrait of Eugène Delacroix, by Leon Riesener, 1842 - Daguerrotype
Daguerrotype portrait of Eugène Delacroix, by Leon Riesener, 1842

Ferdinand-Eugène-Victor Delacroix was born on April 26, 1798, in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, France. His father, Charles, was a minister of foreign affairs and served as a governmental prefect in Marseilles and Bordeaux. His mother, Victoire Oeben, was a cultured woman who encouraged young Delacroix’s love of literature and art. There is reason to believe that his father, Charles Delacroix, was infertile at the time of Eugène’s conception and that his real father was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known simply as Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family and successor of C. Delacroix as minister of the foreign affairs, and whom the adult Eugène resembled in appearance and character. Throughout his career as a painter, he was protected by Talleyrand, who successfully served the Restoration and king Louis-Philippe, and ultimately as ambassador of France in Great Britain, and later by Talleyrand’s grandson, duke of Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and speaker of the French house of commons.

Probable secret father to Eugène Delacroix, , portrait painted in 1816
Probable secret father to Eugène Delacroix, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (unknown artist, 1816)

The family affairs seem to have been conducted in the wildest manner, and the documented accidents that he endured as a child, make it almost a miracle that he survived. He was first nearly burned to death in the cradle by a nursemaid falling asleep over a novel and the candle dropping on the coverlet; this left permanent marks on his arms and face. He was next dropped into the sea by another nursemaid, who was climbing up a ship’s side to see her lover. He was nearly poisoned, and nearly choked, and, to top it all, he tried to hang himself, without any thought of suicide, in imitation of a print exhibiting a man in that position of final ignominy. The prediction founded on his horoscope has been preserved: “This child will become a famous man, but his life will be more arduous, more tormented, and always delivered to the contradiction.”

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