enormous painting (12 by 15 feet!) is a stupendous orgy of violence. The last Assyrian king, reclining on a couch, impassively contemplates the holocaust of jewels, naked women, slaves and horses piled up on what will be his funeral pyre. Finally, in 1831, with Liberty Leading the People, his iconic celebration of the Revolution of 1830, Delacroix produced his most enduringly popular work. But it was considered inflammatory; the government of Louis-Philippe, that acquired it, kept it out of public view. Napoléon III also suppressed the work. Liberty, personified as a young woman, her breasts bared, holds aloft the tricolor flag in her right hand and a rifle in the left as she boldly strides forward, leading the rebellious citizens over the barricade. In 1886, when the Third Republic was well established in France, and Delacroix’s painting back on public view, another artist was commissioned to create an allegory of Liberty. Bartholdi’s monumental statue, a gift from France to the United States, is demurely draped and stands quite still with her right arm raised. She holds a torch in place of a banner, and, in her left hand, not a gun, but a book. The paintings of his youth are the ones that made Delacroix famous, -- they are also the ones that, due to their large scale, could not be included in the Met version of the exhibition (organized in collaboration with the Louvre where it was seen last season). This is a gaping hole that nothing really fills. However, by good fortune, the masterpiece that greets us near the middle of the show offers compensation. Algerian Women in their Apartment (1834) may be the artist’s greatest and most enigmatic work. It takes us far from the clamor and the strife into a hushed, feminine precinct where three women sit quietly beside a hookah on the floor of a luxurious, dimly lit space. A fourth woman, a black servant, turns back towards them before leaving the room. The trance-like gaze of the woman who reclines in the foreground suggests she is lost in some interior dream or vision, reminding us of 83 | MetMagNY.com | 25AMagazine.com
Sardanapalus. Picasso painted many variants of this picture. Perhaps, he felt that these women were predecessors of his Demoiselles d’Avignon. If so, we sense that the Algerian women, unlike the Avignonnaises, care nothing for the spectator. After contemplating this wonderful picture, we should seek out the room from Damascus in the Islamic wing of the Met where we can experience for ourselves some of the timeless serenity that Delacroix captured so unforgettably. The mature years of Delacroix’s career are, paradoxically, the least well known. The authors of the exhibition catalogue justly emphasize the influence of the great public commissions that Delacroix received for decorations in the library of the Senate, the Hôtel de Ville, a chapel at Saint Sulpice, and the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre. To execute these prestigious, large-scale works, the artist looked to the masters: Michelangelo, Veronese, and, especially, Rubens. At a time when numerous artists had begun to focus on minor genres, particularly landscape, Delacroix was loyal to the traditional noble genre of history painting and to its exalted subjects. His dramatic painting of Medea, in which the furious mother prepares to kill her two squirming infants, vies with works by Rubens, Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Delacroix, who despised triviality, contemptuously rejected the premise of Realism. Even his still life paintings are grandly overabundant, great explosions of colorful blossoms that evoke a palatial park, not a cottage garden. The stupefying example in the Met’s own collection was Delacroix’s entry in the salon in 1848. Was it intended as a pointed proclamation of disillusion by the painter of Liberty? We leave this majestic exhibition full of admiration for an artist determined to pursue an ideal of grandeur in a prosaic century. Delacroix was the exemplary Romantic artist, but also the last Old Master.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue September 17, 2018 - January 6, 2019
Featuring Katrina Campins.