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The Met’s ‘Delacroix’ exhibit shows the artist in full

“Delacroix,” a retrospective of the 19th century French painter Eugène Delacroix, is a blockbuster show running this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An ambitious Romantic, Delacroix is known for such paintings as “Women of Algiers” and is considered a key bridge to the Impressionist movement. Jeffrey Brown reports from the Met in New York City, where he speaks with curator Asher Miller.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The blockbuster of this fall art season is Delacroix, a retrospective exhibition of the great 19th century French painter.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He's one of the great figures in art history, Eugene Delacroix, fantastically gifted and prolific, a celebrity who dazzled and often divided the Parisian art world of the mid-19th century, and most of all became a key bridge toward a new kind of art.

    Metropolitan Museum curator Asher Miller.

  • Asher Miller:

    I keep being asked, is he the last old master or is he the first modern painter? He's a little of both and not quite fully either one.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Really?

  • Asher Miller:

    Yes, because we see aspects of both in him. So, to arrive at one or the other conclusion limits our understanding of him and our ability to delve even deeper.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The art lovers, Delacroix is best known for a handful of works, including Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi and Women of Algiers.

    The goal here is to show the artist in full, with nearly 150 paintings, prints and drawings, as well as pages from the journals he kept throughout his life.

    One thing that comes through loud and clear, his drive for greatness.

  • Asher Miller:

    Delacroix was ambitious, if nothing else. His father was a statesman. His mother came from a family of distinguished artisans and craftspeople. His brother-in-law was a general. One brother died in battle.

    He came of age in 1814-1815, right at the moment of Napoleon's downfall. So, for Delacroix, he needed to find a career, and he needed to make his own mark in the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In drawings, you can see Delacroix looking hard at his old masters, including the Venetian Paolo Veronese and Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.

    He took on all kinds of subjects in his work, scenes from literature and mythology, and from North Africa, which he visited with a colonialist era French diplomatic mission.

    There are portraits, historical battles, religious imagery, and animals he watched at the zoo, especially tigers and lions. But it's how he painted them that would offer a bridge to future artists.

    New York Times critic Roberta Smith:

  • Roberta Smith:

    His achievement is opening the door to modernity, even if he didn't go through it, that he made subsequent generations of artists know that the main thing that mattered was paint and how it is applied, and that, when you're looking at a painting, that is the first and sort of the last thing you're looking at.

    That's what attracts you, is its form, and he made people see that in a completely new way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Artists have been looking hard ever since.

    Cezanne said, "You can find all of us in Delacroix." Van Gogh and Picasso voiced their admiration.

    One way of seeing Delacroix is through his choices in composition and color. Roberta Smith pointed to these two smaller versions of a much larger painting titled The Death of Sardanapalus, which baffled many contemporaries with its wild imagery and style.

  • Roberta Smith:

    The thing that's interesting about this painting, which you see in this gallery in particular, is this kind of compositional daring, where the main figure is pushed away from the center, and the center of the painting is actually empty.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, that's true.

  • Roberta Smith:

    And it's this great swathe of salmon pink, saying, all this stuff is going on, but, while you're at it, you can enjoy this amazing extravagance of color that I'm going to present to you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even more innovative, as Delacroix made up his own rules, the brush work and paint itself, so that the painting, says curator Asher Miller, is in some ways about the paint and how it's applied as much as about its subject, Even in an otherwise traditional religious scene.

  • Asher Miller:

    The materiality of the paint, you see little blades of grass, but you read them as brush strokes, so they operate as both.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Artist Walton Ford, known for his exploration of animal imagery, is a contemporary admirer of Delacroix.

    He showed me a favorite, the Lion Hunt. Large as it is, it's actually just a fragment. Its top half was damaged in a fire in 1870.

  • Walton Ford:

    He was though he was looking at Rubens when he painted this, he's got brush strokes in here that look like they'd be comfortable in a Van Gogh painting in the fur of the lion, perspective and rendering where, say, the lion's foot is actually in front of the arm that it's attacking that goes back into space. It makes no sense.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's impossible.

  • Walton Ford:

    It's an impossible thing.

    What he's done is something that later people like Cezanne and Picasso are playing with, that when you do distort these things, and play with the rules of perspective or traditional painting styles, you get a certain tension. It's a psychologically confusing place to be.

    I'm convinced he knew what he was up to.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In one of his new paintings, an homage to the master, Ford couldn't help have some fun with his own version of the painting.

    An enormous lion, Delacroix's paints and journals strewn about, the artist himself, well, let's say he's no longer in command of the scene.

  • Walton Ford:

    My interest was that a lion just wants to be a lion. He doesn't want to be a metaphor.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Walton Ford:

    So…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Thank you, Mr. Delacroix.

  • Walton Ford:

    Yes. So, he's like, well, if you're going to make me a metaphor, I'm going to make you a meal.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Art lovers can indulge their own appetites for great painting and a key figure in art history.

    Delacroix the exhibition is up through January 6 of next year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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