Delacroix was born in Charenton-Saint Maurice, near Paris into an aristocratic and wealthy family. Although he was registered as the son of Charles Delacroix, a diplomat and former Foreign Minister, rumor had it that he was the natural son of Talleyrand, the famous diplomat who became French Foreign Minister after Charles Delacroix. As an adult, Eugene Delacroix certainly bore a striking resemblance to Talleyrand, who went to great lengths to assist Delacroix in his career.
Little is known about Delacroix’s childhood, except that he loved art and won prizes from his prestigious school for his drawing. In 1815 Delacroix went to study painting in the studio of Pierre Guerin, a neoclassical artist. But despite his formal training Delacroix leant towards the style of the Italian and Flemish schools, absorbing the works of Rubens, Veronese and fellow Frenchman Theodore Gericault from whom he learnt to combine the romantic ideal with the violent action of the times.
Delacroix’s first major painting The Barque of Dante, which was inspired by Gericault’s work, The Raft of the Medusa, was accepted by the Paris Salon. It caused an instant sensation, was decried by the public and judges alike, but the French government still purchased the painting for one of its public buildings.
Delacroix painted the Massacre at Chios, another important work inspired by the Greek struggle for freedom from Turkish rule. The painting is loaded with action and emotion, depicted in bold colors and masterful brushstrokes. It brought him wide popular acclaim and was also bought by the French government. A second masterpiece, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, was also a dramatic statement in support of the Greeks and their quest for independence. It was inspired by a terrible event where an entire city committed suicide rather than surrender to the Turkish forces. Throughout his life Delacroix was to be inspired by literary sources and one of his icons, the poet Byron, died at Missolonghi.
In 1832 Delacroix joined a diplomatic mission to Morocco and the newly conquered Algeria. Spellbound by the inhabitants, the exotic costumes, the colors and contrasts, he produced a wealth of paintings, drawings and watercolor sketches of the native peoples of North Africa. In Algiers, Delacroix drew Muslim women in their costumes. He painted a Jewish wedding, he painted wild animals and indeed, his portrayals of lions, tigers and horses are some of the finest in animal art.
Between 1833 and 1861 Delacroix worked on many commissions from the French government and royalty to produce murals for public buildings and palaces in Paris. He had to work long, tiring hours on scaffolding in cold, drafty buildings. His health deteriorated as a result.
Eugene Delacroix died in Paris on August 13, 1863 aged 65. During his lifetime he had dominated the French art scene and he had been awarded many honors. He had produced over 850 paintings, many of them masterpieces, over 8,000 drawings and watercolors and also 60 sketch books. In the words of his contemporary, the French poet Baudelaire, Delacroix was “The last of the great artists of the Renaissance and the first modern.
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