Monday, November 14, 2011

Drawings from the Revolution

Jacques-Louis David, Sketch for
Intervention of the Sabine Women in the Fight
Between the Sabines and the Romans
French, 1798-1799
Drawing (graphite, pen and black ink on paper)
Paris, Louvre
Currently, the Morgan Library in New York is offering two special and complementary exhibitions. The largest is an exhibition of 80 drawings on loan from the Louvre Museum in Paris, called David, Delacroix and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre.* The smaller, Ingres at the Morgan, focuses on 16 drawings taken from the Morgan’s own collection. Both exhibitions are a reminder of a revolutionary time in history, i.e., the years of the French Revolution, and the revolution in art that accompanied it. They focus on the artists who were the witnesses of the former and the actors in the latter.

In these two exhibitions we can chart the threads of artistic expression that carried art in France from the end of the Rococo era, just prior to the French Revolution, through the Neo-Classical phase, which ran concurrently with the Revolution and the First French Empire (Napoleon), and into the Romantic era, with its focus on the exotic, the emotional and the natural world. Indeed, it can be argued that the Neo-Classical style is simply another form of the predominant Romanticism of the period, a different mode of the exotic.

Viewing the drawings from the Louvre is like taking a walk through the history of early 19th century French art. All the important artists, and many of the lesser known, are included: David, Gerard, Gericault, Girodet, Granet, Gros, Ingres. But the most revealing are the many drawings by Delacroix that are included.

Eugene Delacroix, Study for
Liberty Leading the People,
French, 1830
Drawing, Graphite with chalk on paper
Paris, Louvre
Eugene Delacroix is, par excellence, the artist of the Romantic era. His paintings of exotic scenes, based on his travels in North Africa, his portrayal of scenes charged with violence and strong emotions made him the acknowledged leader of the Romantic painters and one of the most influential painters in Europe.

His amazing versatility is strongly apparent in this exhibition. Where the drawings of other artists are mainly finished sketches for compositions or drawings of details, Delacroix’ drawings run through an astonishing range. There are carefully detailed drawings of nearly finished scenes. Others are quick sketches of landscape and architecture. Still others are studies for details of figures.

But the really astonishing drawings are of pure motion, the first such drawings I have ever seen outside of the studies of whirlpools and clouds by Leonardo da Vinci. But, whereas the Leonardo drawings examine natural forces, Delacroix’ are focused on human activity.

Delacroix, Study for The Death of Sardanapalus
French, 1826-1827
Drawing, Pen, brown ink, brown wash on paper
Paris, Louvre
Through these drawings Delacroix appears to be working his way toward the highly active scenes for which he is famous. The variety of moods in his drawings reveals much about how his mind worked and they are fascinating to observe. I gained a whole new outlook on and respect for Delacroix from this exhibition.

If Delacroix was the leader of those Romantic whose mode was centered on the “sublime”, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was the leader of the other wing, the Neo-Classicists. Characterized by calm, clear-edged lines and compositions, the Neo-Classicists took their subjects from both contemporary life and the distant past. Thus, the accompanying exhibition of Ingres’ drawings, taken from the Morgan’s own collection is an interesting supplement to the main exhibition.
Jean-Dominique Ingres,
Frau Reinhold and Her Daughters
French, 1815
Drawing, Graphite on paper
New York, Morgan Library
In it, one can see fine examples of Ingres work, especially of his works recording contemporary life, i.e., as a portraitist. This exhibition can be viewed online at

The Ingres exhibition will run until November 27th. The exhibition from the Louvre runs throughout the Christmas season, ending on New Year’s Eve. If you’re in the New York area during the season, I urge you to take a break from the shopping or sightseeing and visit them.

* For more information about this exhibition see:

© M. Duffy, 2011

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