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Rubens and Delacroix: Emotional Innovators
“Do we admire? Not always. Can we remain unmoved? Scarcely ever.” This quote concerns the work of Peter Paul Rubens, but could just as easily apply to the work of Eugène Delacroix. Both were deeply emotional painters, both used vibrant colour to good effect, and both aroused intense emotions in their audiences.
Peter Paul Rubens was born in Westphalia in 1577, but would spend most of his life (and be identified with) the country of Flanders. He was accepted into the service of the Duke of Mantua, and his first style of painting, understandably, was Italian. Mannerism dominated his very early work, then he moved toward Baroque, influenced by Bassano and Veronese (also a strong influence on Delacroix). He absorbed knowledge and style from the Baroque and Classical schools, merging the two into his own unique style. His diplomatic missions for the Regent of Netherlands took him to Spain, Paris, and England—giving him the opportunity to learn from the art of those countries as well.
All of this contributes to, but does not totally define, Rubens’ style. He was a master in his own right, who knew how to take the best from others and make it completely his own. He developed a technique for painting skin which gave it a luminescent, realistic glow; he revolutionized the art of colour; he merged the love of the classical with a passion for the romantic. All of this would greatly influence the art of Eugène Delacroix, one hundred and fifty years later.
Eugène Delacroix was born in 1798, just one year before the French Revolution. The political scene in France, while he was never active in it, was very important to the work of Delacroix in three ways: his attitude toward it, his choice of subjects, and the acceptance of his work by others—or would non-acceptance sometimes be more appropriate? For Delacroix was not universally loved during his lifetime, as was Rubens. His raw emotionalism, slightly ahead of its time, was not always appreciated, and often offended. The effect of politics on Delacroix is interesting, but needs a paper of its own. Although he studied under the strict classical regimen of Guérin’s school, he never embraced the classical style as did others of his time, such as Ingres. Rather, he followed in the footsteps of Théodore Géricault, preferring to paint intense dramatic scenes portraying death or cruelty. Many of these paintings, particularly Death of Sardanapalus, were quite controversial at the time and were denounced by an outraged public.
However, having some amount of independent wealth, Delacroix was not kept from painting as he saw fit. A trip to England enhanced his understanding of how to use landscape to evoke emotion, and a trip to Morocco gave him his perfect human model in the Moroccans—classical and dignified, yet exotic and dramatic. Many of his paintings are now masterpieces and have heavily influenced Impressionism.
I would like to use a few of the works of Rubens and Delacroix to show more extensively the similarities and differences in their styles. Delacroix admired Rubens immensely, and learned much from his use of colour.
Albert and Nicolaas Rubens (c. 1625) by Peter Paul Rubens (Colorplate
I am sure that Rubens painted more famous portraits than this one of his two sons, but it happens to be one of my personal favorites. Delacroix’s portrait of Paganini is certainly more famous than this self-portrait, but I think this one is more representative of his overall portrait style.
Albert and Nicolaas is painted sharply and realistically, with the glowing skin tones so characteristic of Rubens. On the other hand, Self-Portrait, while giving us a good idea of what Delacroix looked like, is painted swiftly and without crisp delineation. Rubens uses bright colours in his painting, particularly on the blue coat of Nicolaas. Delacroix’s portrait is much darker, suiting the romantic style, but he has utilized some of his knowledge of colour in the face and hair, making himself look alive, but sickly—which he was.
Rubens’ portrait is intended both to tell us about his sons and what they were like and also to make a commentary on the transitoriness of youth (through the flight of the goldfinch held by Nicolaas, as well as the expression on his face). Delacroix wanted us not only, and probably not primarily, to know what he looked like, but about his thoughts, temperment and personality.
Ganymede and the Eagle (c. 1611-1612) by Peter Paul Rubens
Delacroix depended more on current events and the literature of his own time than on Greek and Roman mythology for his subjects; therefore, his famous painting of Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno was the closest I could come to a mythological painting by Delacroix. However, mythology was a huge inspiration to Rubens, as well as most other artists of his time.
Ganymede tells the story of a youth, Ganymede, who was abducted by Jupiter in the form of an eagle and taken back to Mount Olympus. The skin tones here are, again, lovely. The composition is wonderful, with the figure eagle carrying Ganymede echoing the lines of the youth’s body. The angels on the left are done in soft, light tones, evoking an airy and otherworldly sense, while Ganymede and the eagle are crisp and well-defined.
The Bark of Dante was one of Delacroix’s early paintings, strongly influenced by The Raft of the Medusa (Colourplate XI), painted by his close friend Théodore Géricault. It is active, horrifying, and intended to bring out intense emotions. Virgil and Dante in the boat are dark-skinned and not very distinctive; the bodies of the soulless men in the Inferno have a deathly pale to them.
It was in Dante that Delacroix made his first advances in the field of colour, by putting the colours of the drops of water on one man’s skin side by side rather than on top of each other. Rubens had used similar techniques, and both men were the supreme colourists of their day.
Rubens’ painting has emotion through movement, and movement through composition. Delacroix’s painting has emotion through colour and subject. Rubens idealizes his youth in the classical-Baroque style, while the men in Dante are little more than instruments to convey the painter’s personal emotions.
Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) by Peter Paul Rubens (Colourplate
Descent From the Cross was painted to be the centerpiece of the altar at Antwerp Cathedral. Again, it shows Rubens’ skill at composition, using the diagonal body of Christ to create movement and dynamism. It is painted less distinctly than either Albert and Nicolaas or Ganymede, with quicker and broader brushstrokes which are easily visible in close-up.
Death of Sardanapalus, very controversial at the time, is now generally accepted as Delacroix’s masterpiece. The story is paraphrased from a Byron poem in which a king, in order to keep his court and harem from falling into the hands of enemies, orders them all brought to his chambers and killed, including himself, then burned. The painting is very exotic, violent and romantic. The figures reflect one another in a well-planned, but rather difficult to connect, composition.
Both of these paintings are quite emotional, though in very different ways. Descent calls for emotions of sadness and loss at the death and sufferings of Christ. One can almost feel the despair that the followers of Jesus must have felt at that moment. Sardanapalus, on the other hand, evokes feelings of horror at the actions of such a seemingly heartless king and lover. Sardanapalus himself seems almost disinterested in the whole orgy of violence. This is a commentary not only on the difference between the worldviews of the two painters, but also between the philosophies of the time period of each.
The colouring of both paintings is worth noting. Delacroix had obviously learned a few things about painting flesh from Rubens. Several of the dead and dying bodies in Sardanapalus carry much the same colouring as does the dead body of Christ in Descent. Delacroix preferred to paint either with these death-like tones or with the dark skin colours of the Moroccans—both were more exotic and emotional than the softer in-between tones.
One more thing: Descent is remarkable in its simplicity. While there are many people, they are all involved in the same thing and there is a unity of composition. Sardanapalus seems busy to me. There are many things happening all over the painting, too much to look at and too much to see. I get dizzy just looking at it. While I admit that it is impressive and accomplishes its purpose of high drama and emotionalism, I much prefer Rubens’ Descent.
Lion Hunt (1621) by Peter Paul Rubens (Colourplate VII)
This set of paintings is particularly interesting because both painters did a version of the same subject, even with the same title! Rubens’ is characterized, again, by that dynamic diagonal composition he liked so much. Delacroix uses a loose figure triangle overall, made up of three or four smaller ones at the corners. Both are very lively and full of action, forcing our eyes to dart around quickly to absorb everything.
Both paintings have Arabs as characters, but Delacroix’s has Arabs solely, while Rubens includes some Europeans as well, one of them in armor. Rubens’ hunters are probably on a hunting trip abroad with Arab guides, but Delacroix’s are Arabs hunting for their own benefit.
As usual, Rubens’ painting is fairly crisply delineated, but it is rather chaotic to my mind. Delacroix himself said as much: “The whole effect is one of confusion…” His own painting is larger and less cluttered (contrasting with his Sardanapalus), but still gives a sense of movement and violence. I prefer Rubens’ cleanness of line to Delacroix’s quick, instinct brushwork, but I like Delacroix’s composition better than Rubens’ in this set of works.
I would like to say a few words about some other paintings by Rubens and Delacroix that do not have clear relationships to those of the other artist. First of all, Rubens painted several landscapes later in his life which are highly admired today (Colourplate IX). Delacroix painted virtually no landscapes, except those that are backgrounds to other scenes. Delacroix is said to have admired and learned from the noted English landscape artist John Constable, but while I see some similarity between Constable and Rubens, I see little between Constable and Delacroix. Constable probably had some influence on the lightness of certain Delacroix paintings, but there is none of Constable’s sense of reality in nature in Delacroix. Rubens’ landscapes, on the other hand, are very realistic, and yet done with soft brushwork.
There is nothing in Rubens’ work to compare with Delacroix’s portrait of Paganini (Colourplate X). However, this is a good subject to use to contrast their purposes in painting. While Paganini is hardly representative of Delacroix’s overall portrait style, it shows his movement toward Impressionism. Paganini is meant not to tell us how Paganini looked: If we wanted that, we could look at Ingres’ very capable sketch of him (Colourplate XII). Rather, Paganini shows us what Paganini felt when he was playing the music he loved so well. Rubens never had a thought in this direction. It probably never would have occurred to him to paint someone other than how he looked. Most of his works were commissioned, for one thing, with the patron wanting the portrait to resemble him; but also, the very personal feeling that Delacroix had toward his painting did not really surface until this romantic period. I do not particularly like Paganini, but it is very important in showing the difference in intention between Delacroix and Rubens. Rubens intended to show objective reality, tinged with emotion and movement. Delacroix intended to show subject feelings, tinged with emotionalism and violence.
Also, just a quick word on Rubens’ influence on Delacroix. Obviously, the colour thing. Delacroix gained much of his knowledge as a colourist from Rubens, particularly the colouring of skin; though some of that was culled from Géricault, as well. In Delacroix’s early paintings, particularly Bark of Dante, the figures carry the same monumental, muscular structure as do those in nearly all of Rubens’ paintings. Rubens himself learned this from the great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo. Delacroix would move away from this style of bodies in time.
This basically sums up the two painters. Both used emotional subjects, dynamic compositions and lively scenes. Both were revolutionary in their use of colour. But Rubens gave us emotion, showing true feeling in real or mythological settings. Delacroix gave us emotionalism, showing overwrought feeling in exotic or literary settings. I get the sense that Rubens knew who he was and what he was here for, but Delacroix was always searching for truth and himself, but never found them.
“Do we admire? Not always. Can we remain unmoved? Scarcely ever.”
Scribner, Charles III. Peter Paul Rubens. New York: The Easton Press, 1989
Morrall, Andrew. The History and Techniques of the Great Masters: Rubens. London: Chartwell Books, Inc., 1988
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Rubens. London: Spring Art Books, 1961
Prideaux, Tom. The World of Delacroix: 1798-1863. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966
This paper originated as a term paper for Art Appreciation, Missouri Baptist College, Spring, 2000.
©2000 by Jandy Stone