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Goya: The Parasol, 1777. Museu Nacional del Prado, Madrid
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Delacroix: The Shipwreck of Don Juan, 1840. Musée du Louvre, Paris
Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) and Frenchman Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) are utterly distinctive artists yet comparable in their contrasts. Each broached grim, often violent subject matter imaginatively, manipulating colour and tone to heighten emotion and make fantastical scenes seem real.
Goya, portrait painter to the royal courts of Carlos III and IV, lived through times that would drive anyone mad. At the height of his career, an illness left him stone deaf and while he continued with commissioned works, he began to produce series upon series of dark, introspective, aquatinted etchings in which he documented an ignorant and immoral society with unflinching acuity.
In a series of prints called ‘Caprichos’ (1799), Goya used points of white to pierce darker areas so that the eye draws his scenes together, making them seem believable despite the wild subject matter: a carnival of cannibals, animals and witches, or two men carrying donkeys in Tú que no puedes (1797). His portraits are even more remarkable, given that they were paid for. His subjects are overtly plump and self-satisfied (Carlos IV de rojo, 1789) or drooling and ignorant, and he finished them by candlelight so that figures seem illuminated on hazy, menacing backdrops, where mysterious cloaked figures, or the mere suggestion of them, lurk (La Feria de Madrid, 1778-9). How he got away with it seems to prove all the points he is trying to make. For his famous La Maja nude from 1800 (the clothed version is on show here), he was dragged up before the Inquisition, yet without further repercussions. From 1808 to 1815, violence and famine wracked the country as Napoleon Bonaparte battled with Spain. Of this, Goya produced a seething set of prints, ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’, that was published after his death. Scenes depict reciprocal, interminable violence irrelative of status, nationality or gender (Enterrar y callar, 1810-14).
In 1826, as Goya in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux daubed demons on the walls of his home, an idealistic young Frenchman was causing a stir in Paris with his own emotive but unsentimental visions of war. Unlike Goya, Eugène Delacroix went looking for adventure. Yet while he conjured up dramatic scenes of the Greek uprising against the Turks (Greece dying on the ruins of Missolonghi, 1826), he remained “coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible,” according to Baudelaire. He developed a technique in which one colour influenced another, amplifying emotion without compromising on authenticity.
Delacroix expressed in art what his Romantic contemporaries did in literature, painting scenes from Lord Byron’s satirical poem Don Juan (The Shipwreck of Don Juan, 1840) and from Gothic novels such as Melmoth the Wanderer (The Public Confession, 1831). He championed individuality and creative genius while making the artist seem humble and homely; he portrays 17th-century poet John Milton relating Paradise Lost to his children (1827), and Baron Louis-Auguste Schwiter having artistic thoughts in the bosom of nature (1826-30). After travelling to North Africa in 1832, Delacroix painted exotic scenes that also seem warm and domestic. In the sensuality of a harem (Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1834) or the whirling choreography of a marketplace (Fanatics of Tangier, 1838), Delacroix’s influence on the Impressionists seems clear: they just had to put in a paintbrush and stir.
Read more of Alx’s writing on her blog at www.lookingfordrama.com