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Basket of Flowers and Fruit
Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, French, 1798 - 1863
Delacroix: The Late Work
We do not know what was behind Delacroix's original decision to present five flower paintings at the Salon of 1849. In the end, however, he exhibited only two, keeping a more sizable shipment for the Exposition Universelle of 1855. Undoubtedly, he was predisposed to paint flowers by a passion for flower gardens and gardening, which he shared with his acquaintance George Sand and his great friend Josephine de Forget--in whose company the artist "prowled around rose bushes." Delacroix may have developed a now-forgotten pictorial or decorative scheme meant to unite the three paintings--A Basket of Flowers Overturned in a Park (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.187.60), Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, cat. 974), and A Vase of Flowers on a Console (Montauban, Musée Ingres, M.N.R. 162; D.51.3.2)--with two works that have since been lost, A Bed of Marguerites and Dahlias and Hydrangeas and Agapanthus by a Pond.1 Delacroix's references--perfectly outlined by art critic Theophile Gautier--to the masterpieces of the genre painted by Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (1634--1699), Jan Davidz. de Heem (1606 - 1684), and Jan van Huysum (1682 - 1749), as well as his admiration for certain Spanish and Italian still lifes, also explain his passion for a genre he had studied very little up to that point. Consideration should also be given to Delacroix's overriding desire during this period to attempt all genres and explore all techniques so that he could present himself as a great master, a "pure classic." We should note, however, that his interest in these attempts at still-life painting was intrinsic and personal enough to prevent him from selling or giving away any of the flower paintings he did for the Salon of 1849. In fact, he kept them until his death.
Taking advantage of a hiatus in his great decorative commissions in Paris--he had just finished the library in the Palais Bourbon and had not yet begun the decorations for the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre or the church of Saint-Sulpice--Delacroix spent the entire first quarter of 1849 working on these flower paintings. Although the painter apparently lost his Journal for 1848--in a coach, as Pierre Andrieu says--leaving us few notes on his work for that year, numerous sketches show that, as early as that fall, he was preparing for his flower paintings and had, during the same period, already begun to bring one or another of the compositions to completion. On February 7, 1849, he visited the dealer Beugniet to look for a frame "for [his] flowers,"2 a fact that implies at least one of these works was already almost finished. Several drawings showing "marigolds" and "Indian roses"--including one dated November 13, 1848--reveal the artist's ongoing concerns in the autumn preceding the Salon. Throughout this period, his letters to Josephine de Forget abound with references to the arrangement of flowers growing in the garden at Champrosay.
Whatever the case may be, Delacroix's Journal gives us a sufficiently accurate idea of the various stages of his work. For example, the entry for February 14, 1849, recalls a discussion with Adrien de Jussieu: "Had a long conversation with Jussieu after dinner on the subject of flowers in connection with my pictures; I have promised to visit him in the spring. He is going to show me the greenhouses and will arrange for me to have every opportunity to study there."3 This friendly exchange may have restored the artist's self-confidence because the next day, after he had gone back to work on the flower paintings and made progress particularly on the "fruit basket" (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, cat. 974), he noted: "I was feeling badly and did but little. That, however, put me back into a good mood for work, and I think that if I soon finish the things that are not done at all, the parts which are already pushed ahead will immediately look finished."4 On February 16, he added that he had also "worked on the Flowers and Fruits."5 During the spring of that year, Delacroix was not to rediscover the tranquility of nature or the inspiration of live models, since he did not stay at Champrosay, nor did he--within this period--take Jussieu up on his invitation to visit the Jardin des Plantes. Rather, he continued working regularly on his paintings in the studio, as is proven by various passages in his Journal: "Sunday, March 11 [1849}.--Got working early on the painting of the Hydrangeas and the Agapanthus. I concerned myself only with the latter."6
Although he explicitly told Constant Dutilleux that he wished to paint "these pieces of nature. . . as they present themselves to us in gardens" in his compositions for the Salon, Delacroix adhered to most of the genre's conventions regarding subject and presentation, obligatory since the seventeenth century. These included: a mix of fruit and flowers--or highly diversified flower species--that made for a greater variety of painterly effects or color choices; a sophisticated arrangement of flowers in the basket in which they were collected, overturned in one case and displayed proudly on a console in the other; and a careful placement of flowers that took into consideration their relationship to the landscape in which they were set. A Basket of Flowers Overturned in a Park, for example, makes use of a natural architectural motif in the leafy arch above the overturned flower basket. And in Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, a patch of sky is seen through a curtain of trees, and growing flowers enliven the left foreground of the composition. These artistic devices obviously accentuate an already somewhat mannered theatricality. That Delacroix was seeking this very quality in these carefully considered compositions is a judgment based on the various pastel or watercolor studies that Delacroix made for the paintings.
With the date of the Salon drawing near, and four of his paintings already finished, Delacroix decided, for reasons that remain unknown, to limit his ambitions and exhibit only two of the five works he had painted during the winter. As a member of the jury, he had full control over his decisions, and it was easy, at the last moment, to ask his friend and relative Léon Riesener to withdraw the two paintings he no longer wanted to show Salon audiences.7 It should be pointed out here that both Alfred Robaut and André Joubin were mistaken in claiming that Delacroix exhibited three works at the Salon of 1849; the exhibition booklet mentions only the two paintings (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.187.60 and Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, cat. 974).
This retrenchment did not dampen the enthusiasm of the critics, who, for once, were almost unanimous in praising Delacroix's work. (It is true, of course, that his Salon presentation that year included three other paintings: Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,8 Othello and Desdemona,9 and Syrian Arab with His Horse.10) Thus, L. Cailleux affirmed that "Delacroix has caught the secrets of flowers and their casualness, subsequently translating them for us with that impulsive energy he is known for."11 Louis Peisse was warmly enthusiastic, finding the two paintings "sparkling with color, graciously composed and arranged, generously and vigorously painted." He noted that "these flowers and fruit are excellent and perfectly suited for their purpose, which is not to be picked or eaten, but to simply be looked at."12 Champfleury remarked that he had "never seen flowers that could match those of Delacroix."13 Once again, the most subtle and judicious appraisals came from the pen of Théophile Gautier:
One would have to go back to Baptiste, to Monnoyer, or indeed to the fruit and flower paintings of Juan de Avellaneda and Velázquez. . . one must not look for painstaking renditions of individual veins or fuzz on leaves. . . . This is, quite simply, an orgy of color, a feast for the eyes. What is praiseworthy in these two canvases, aside from the excellence of the color, is the stylistic treatment of the flowers, which are usually treated in a totally botanical fashion, without any regard for their bearing, poise, physiognomy, or character. Each flower has its own particular mode of expression, be it gay, sad, silent, noisy, brash, modest, demure, lascivious, open or closed, mild, fierce, unsettling or soothing. They also display specific attitudes, their own special brands of coquettishness or haughtiness--none of which is conveyed by common flower painters concerned with trifles.14
With one or two exceptions, all the critical reactions were perfectly positive and in agreement with that of P. Haussard: "In no work by any master of the genre is there anything to equal the dazzling touch and delicate feeling of these Flowers, nor the tender harmony of the greenery that frames them; nothing surpasses the gravity of the style, the breadth of execution, of these Fruit, nor the skillful arrangement of their setting."15 Veritable windows opening on a tranquil nature, these two works, one of which was undoubtedly shown again at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, exude great freshness despite the intellectual recombination of elements used by the artist in homage to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch and French painters. Bravura works, they reveal Delacroix's deep-seated ambition to revitalize the genre by means of a kind of realism in which stylistic convention and decoration would serve the contemplation of nature--and not the reverse. Vincent Pomarède, from Delacroix: The Late Work (1998), pp. 127-130.
1. Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981-89 (1832-1836, vols. 3 and 4, 1986), vol. 3, nos. L213 and L214.
2. Delacroix, Eugène. Journal, 1822-1863. Paris: Plon, 1996, February 7, 1849, p. 175.
3. Journal, February 14, 1849 (Norton, Lucy, trans. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix: A Selection, ed. Hubert Wellington. London: Phaidon, 1951, p. 88).
4. Journal, February 15, 1849 (Pach, Walter, trans. The Journal of Eugène Delacroix . New York: Friede, 1937, pp. 184-85).
5. Journal, February 16, 1849 (ibid., p. 585).
6. Delacroix, Eugène. Journal, 1822-1863. Paris: Plon, 1996, March 11, 1849, p. 184. The painting mentioned in this quotation is one of the two floral works originally intended for the Salon of 1849 whose whereabouts are presently unknown.
7. Delacroix to Riesener, June 9, 1849, Joubin, André, ed. Delacroix: Correspondance. 5 vols. Paris, 1936-38 (1804-1837, vol. 1, 1936; 1838-1849, vol. 2, 1937; 1850-1857, vol. 3, 1937; 1858-1863, vol. 4, 1938; Supplément et tables, vol. 5, 1938), vol. 2, p. 380.
8. Musée Fabre, Montpellier; Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981-89 (1832-1836, vols. 3 and 4, 1986), vol. 3, no. 382, pl. 171.
9. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; ibid., vol. 3, no. 291, pl. 110.
10. Private collection; Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981-89 (1832-1836, vols. 3 and 4, 1986), vol. 3, no. 348, pl. 161.
11. Cailleux, L. "Salon de 1849." Le Temps, June 28 and 29, 1849.
12. Peisse, Louis. "Salon de 1849." Le Constitutionnel, July 8, 1849.
13. Champfleury, [Jules Husson-Fleury]. "Salon de 1849." La Silhouette, July 15, 1849, p. 167.
14. Gautier, Théophile. "Salon de 1849." La Presse, August 1, 1849.
15. Haussard, P. "Salon de 1849." Le National, August 7, 1849.