In 1827 painted the huge and provocative The Death of Sardanapalus, a painting that was widely vilified. The subject, taken from a play by Byron (the man who inspired in him “that insatiable longing to create”), shows the cruel and jaded Assyrian potentate sitting on a bed atop his funeral pyre as his enemies storm Nineveh and close in on him. He will not go up in flames alone, however, and orders all his royal chattels – concubines, horses, jewels, slaves – to join him in immolation. Quite what Delacroix thought he was up to in painting this vortex of luxury and death is unclear. Brilliantly and rapidly assembled, the picture was nevertheless castigated as aberrant in both technique and in taste, and the painter received an official warning. Sardanapalus, a voyeur at the heart of this maelstrom of slaughter, also has uncomfortable overtones of self-portraiture.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, the “decadent” author of Against Nature, never met Delacroix but he had Sardanapalus in mind when he summed up the painter: “Strange man, almost always imperfect, ill-tempered and languid, superb when his fever burns, theatrical and melodramatic when it smoulders, he has been a titanic force against the comatose in art, strychnine electrifying the old julep prescribed by the recipes of the dyers of grand art.”
If Sardanapalus was an essay in literary Orientalism, Delacroix came face to face with the real thing when he visited north Africa in 1832 as part of a diplomatic mission led by the Comte de Mornay. In Morocco and Algeria Delacroix encountered a world “As beautiful as antiquity … The heroes of [Jacques-Louis] David and Co, with their rose pink limbs, would cut a sorry figure beside these children of the sun, who wear the dress of classical antiquity with a nobler air.” He sketched and painted watercolours obsessively, his subjects ranging from parading Arab horsemen and ecstatic religious processions to a Jewish wedding and the harem: “I am like a man in a dream,” he wrote, “seeing things he fears will vanish from him.”
On his return to France, these sketches and visual memories formed a rich repertoire: nearly 80 oil paintings and innumerable drawings, lithographs and etchings grew out of them. The most potent subject, perhaps, was the women’s apartments he had managed to see in a Muslim house in Algeria. He glimpsed this forbidden world through the indulgence of a Christian turned Muslim convert who was working for the French and who allowed the artist into his own home: “It is beautiful! Like the age of Homer,” said the wonderstruck painter. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment of 1834, of which he painted two versions, is an exercise in subdued eroticism. Exotic, otherworldly, sensual, richly patterned with colour and light, the picture is a subtle and personal melding of external reality and internal feeling.
Women of Algiers was a sensation at the Salon and harbinger of a slew of “harem” pictures by lesser artists which coarsened Delacroix’s vision of art for art’s sake. Here, mood and beauty of form, rather than narrative, are paramount, producing what he called “the music of painting”. Cézanne was among the younger artists for whom the picture was a revelation: “All this luminous colour – it seems to me that it enters the eye like a glass of wine running into your gullet and it makes you drunk straight away.” The picture later obsessed Picasso who painted 15 variants and drew and etched almost 60 more.
What Delacroix found in north Africa was confirmation of his painterly principles. The last entry in the Journal that he kept properly from 1847 reads: “The first merit of a painting is to be a feast for the eye … it’s like beautiful verses; nothing in the world will prevent them from being bad if they shock the ear.” Literalism was his bugbear: “The forms of the model, whether it is a tree or a man, are only the dictionary where the artist goes to give renewed force to his fugitive impressions.” For Delacroix, a painting should bring forth the viewer’s own memories of nature. He was implacably opposed to the “petty details” and “the love of exactitude, which most people take for truth” and the “pernicious archaism” of his artistic opposite Ingres. “Cold exactitude is not art,” he said, “The feigned conscientiousness of our majority of painters is only perfection applied to the art of being boring.” For all his icy self-control, Delacroix was never boring.