In Defense of Painting: Delacroix’s Lion Hunt at the 1855 Exposition Universelle
In 1854, commissioned to produce a major painting for a retrospective of his work at the 1855 Exposition universelle in Paris, Eugène Delacroix chose an unusual subject. The artist known for his ambitious history paintings of ancient tragedy, medieval warfare, and modern political conflicts opted for a theme that was resolutely ahistorical: a vaguely North African scene of men hunting lions (fig. 1). It was a curious choice from an artist with Delacroix’s commitments and for an exhibition whose broad mandate was to celebrate French achievements not just in the arts but in colonial expansion and technological growth. Organized in response to the 1851 World’s Fair in London, the exhibition was meant to showcase French industrial innovation, imperial power, and cultural superiority.1 To demonstrate the latter, the Exposition devoted a huge space to the arts. Within the enormous exhibition hall housing the fine arts, four artists were given the honor of individual retrospectives: Delacroix, Horace Vernet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Alexandre Decamps. Only Delacroix, however, received a commission from the French government to produce a painting for the exhibition. He seems to have been given remarkable latitude in choosing the topic of his picture, as the official commission stated only that he would be executing “a painting for which [he] must submit the subject and the sketch.”2 The sum of 12,000 francs was a fairly handsome one, implying the expectation of a substantial canvas, but beyond the request for approval of the subject and sketch, no other stipulations were made. Instead of opting for a traditional history painting, Delacroix selected the lion hunt, taking a theme that nineteenth-century artists had hitherto treated in modestly sized genre paintings and executing it on a monumental scale, about 8.5 by 11.75 feet. Lion Hunt represented a fusion of types: part genre scene and part heroic battle of the sort found in traditional history painting, a dramatic struggle between hunters and hunted. Delacroix’s choice of this subject, given the noteworthy degree of artistic freedom afforded by the commission and the international audience offered by the Exposition, is highly meaningful and invites further scrutiny.
Scholarly assessments of the Lion Hunt traditionally associate it with Delacroix’s growing fascination with the symbiotic but unpredictable relationship between civilization and barbarism that informed his mural projects of the 1840s and 1850s. Frank Trapp was among the first to examine this aspect of Lion Hunt and its variants, and he argued that they reveal Delacroix’s pessimistic belief that nature constitutes a “powerful but amoral force” that will overcome human rationality.3 Like Trapp, Nancy Finlay interpreted the paintings as embodying “the ongoing conflict between man and beast, between rational control and unrestrained passion, between civilization and savagery.”4 Eve Twose Kliman, on the other hand, proposed that the meaning of the paintings shifts over time. In her view, the pictures from the 1850s depict nature as a “destructive force against which man can only struggle to survive,” whereas the last hunt painted in 1861 is more ambivalent about human dominance in the universe.5 As meaningful as the conflict between civilization and barbarism may have been to Delacroix, this concern cannot, by itself, account satisfactorily for his extraordinary decision to choose the subject of lion hunting to represent his major new work for the Exposition. At the time of the commission, he had been working on a suite of classical-themed murals for the Hôtel de Ville that centered on an allegory of peace, and he had recently finished Apollo Slaying Python for the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre (completed 1851) as well as two complex mural series, one focusing on ancient history, philosophy, theology and law for the Palais Bourbon and another on epic poetry for the Palais du Luxembourg (both completed 1847).6 These projects suggest that he could have easily chosen any one of a wide range of historical and literary subjects that would have enabled him to further explore the delicate balance between civilization and barbarism.7 Instead, he opted for a hunt scene, a pictorial type that belonged not to the category of nineteenth-century history painting but to the realm of small-scale genre pictures for the commercial art market. Indeed, Delacroix’s own first forays into the theme of lion hunting were painted for dealers.8 His decision to resurrect the grand-manner hunt painting of ages past for the international audience of the Exposition thus demands closer examination and a more robust explanation. The traditional scholarly emphasis on the painting’s understated engagement with the fragility of civilization masks other pressing problems that Lion Hunt gave Delacroix an opportunity to address: the challenges posed by past masters and contemporary realists, the threats and opportunities presented by technology, and the fate of imagination in what Walter Benjamin famously called “the age of mechanical reproduction.”9
Tradition versus Modernity
The sheer oddness of Delacroix’s subject choice and the venue for which his painting was produced suggest that there was more at stake here than the simple reenactment of a cherished theme. Barthélémy Jobert has stressed the Exposition’s significance for the artist, calling it “the final turning point in Delacroix’s career—and one of the most important stages, when he was finally acknowledged by every authority.”10 In Jobert’s estimation, Delacroix’s participation in the Exposition resulted in his election, after seven previous rejections, to the Institut de France. The Exposition was unquestionably a moment of high visibility for Delacroix, both as an artist and as an administrator (the latter thanks to his appointment to the organizing committee). While he cannot have known what impact the Exposition would have on his career, Delacroix understood its importance as a showcase for contemporary art, and he persuaded the committee that the Exposition should focus on the work of living artists rather than serving as a retrospective of nineteenth-century art.11 Given this context, it seems likely that the decision to depict a lion hunt was made carefully. Delacroix received his official appointment to the organizing committee on 24 December 1853, and the commission for the painting followed on 24 March 1854. He had already chosen the subject and started working on it by April 1854, and in July 1854 he told critic Louis Peisse that he had not yet chosen any painting other than Lion Hunt for his retrospective, underscoring the weightiness of the commission in his preparations.12
While the broad scholarly consensus favors the primacy of the civilization-versus-barbarism theme in Lion Hunt, Vincent Pomarède has argued that the painting should be seen as a retrospective in itself, the apogee and synthesis of Delacroix’s artistic commitments:
Lion Hunt was undeniably the culmination of all of Delacroix’s studies, combining as it does the three key themes that had occupied the artist throughout his career: Orientalist studies, hunts and battles, and animals. At a deeper level, this canvas also represents a striking synthesis, on one hand, of Delacroix’s studies of movement and expression and his sense of the drama of violence and color—Romantic impulses that, despite his denials, he had pursued throughout his career—and, on the other, of his interest in scenes that derived from the classical tradition and recalled the masterpieces of the great Renaissance and eighteenth-century masters.13
In this interpretation, Lion Hunt becomes a portmanteau for Delacroix’s concerns as an artist, but it is one that looks backward rather than forward. Pomarède’s notion of Lion Hunt as a retrospective picture suggests a vision of the mature Delacroix as a retrogressive figure far removed from the iconoclastic young history painter of the 1820s. The emphatically un-modern subject of Lion Hunt, with its ahistorical North African flavor, has perhaps contributed to this notion of its aesthetic conservatism. This quality, along with Delacroix’s complaints about modernization, has led some scholars to interpret Lion Hunt as a fantastical image that emphatically rejects modernity. Building on the reading of Delacroix’s lion hunt pictures as an exploration of the battle between civilization and barbarism, for example, David O’Brien has recently contended that Lion Hunt and its cognates should be understood as the manifestation of Delacroix’s quest for a passionate expressivity that would combat the banality of the modern world.14 Further, O’Brien has argued that Delacroix’s expressions of dismay, even outrage, about various forms of technological advancement in his journal around the time that he was preparing Lion Hunt reveal that the painting was “conceived in opposition to the ideals of progress and modernity on display at the Exposition universelle.”15 While he avoids Pomarède’s characterization of the picture as a kind of memorial, O’Brien seems to exaggerate the extent of Delacroix’s opposition to modernity and thus reinforces Pomarède’s view. It is my contention, in contrast, that Lion Hunt spoke to the aesthetic power and autonomy of painting in the present with a clear eye to the future, rather than the past.
Delacroix’s concerns about the onslaught of changes wrought by modernization and industrialization are evident in his writings of the 1850s, and he sometimes discussed these transformations in negative terms. For example, he passionately criticized in 1853 the mechanization of farming and the consolidation and privatization of agricultural land.16 On the other hand, as Michèle Hannoosh has pointed out, Delacroix’s anxieties about the harmful effects of certain technological and political changes were not unusual for his time and, in some cases (such as critiques of the movement towards privatization), were shared by both left and right.17 Perhaps more importantly, Hannoosh has demonstrated that Delacroix was fascinated by new technologies, especially photography, even as he enjoyed the supremely modern pursuit of critiquing them. Thus Delacroix’s complaints about train travel, which arguably made his life more comfortable by allowing him to visit the countryside more easily, are interspersed in his journal with accounts of its pleasures.18 As I shall argue later in this essay, Lion Hunt should be seen as a corollary to the artist’s interest in some of these technologies, most notably photography.
One of the underlying influences driving the characterization of Delacroix’s Lion Hunt as a fantastical image divorced from modernity is very likely the subject of the painting itself. For one, Delacroix emulated the hunt paintings of Peter Paul Rubens in an unmistakable manner, and a seventeenth-century source does not seem to be a particularly modern choice. Rubens, long an inspiration for Delacroix, had executed a number of large-scale hunting scenes, including two lion hunts.19 Delacroix’s interest in Rubens’s hunt pictures extended at least as far back as the late 1820s, when he made drawings in two separate sketchbooks from prints after Rubens’s hunt scenes by Pieter Claesz Soutman and Schelte à Bolswert.20 More recently, in his journal in 1847, Delacroix had discussed at some length Soutman’s engravings after Rubens’s Lion Hunt (fig. 2) and Hippopotamus Hunt.21 It is also possible that he saw one of Rubens’s lion hunt paintings in person: Rubens’s Lion Hunt was conserved at the museum in Bordeaux, where Delacroix’s brother Charles lived from 1840 until his death in 1845 and where Delacroix’s own Lion Hunt would eventually be installed.22 Delacroix visited his brother in Bordeaux in 1845 and may have seen Rubens’s painting at that time. As Lee Johnson and George Mras have demonstrated, Delacroix sought, in his own Lion Hunt, to provide a corrective to what he perceived as Rubens’s compositional chaos.23 To a great degree, Delacroix used his picture to engage directly with Rubens, a phenomenon that was observed by Théophile Gautier in his criticism of the 1855 Exposition, and has been explored by most of the scholars who have since examined the painting.24
Another, subtler way in which the subject seems to depart from modernity is in its North African and Eastern Mediterranean iconography. The latter has perhaps contributed to the modern scholarly suspicion that Delacroix’s Lion Hunt looks backward rather than forward. O’Brien, for example, has argued that Delacroix’s Moroccan paintings were motivated by the artist’s desire to escape the pressures of modern life.25 This interpretation may be informed in part by the association of modernity with Charles Baudelaire, whose criticism of the Salon of 1846 launched his first appeal for a new type of art that embraced the heroism of modern Parisian life.26 By associating modernity strictly with subject matter, any painting that did not address European modern life explicitly would qualify as escapism, but Lion Hunt’s subject did engage—if obliquely—the subject of contemporary French colonialism. The presence of Arab men (not to mention the lions themselves) in Lion Hunt offers a broad reference to North Africa that opens the painting to scrutiny for signs of Orientalism, famously characterized by Edward Said as an ideology of cultural and intellectual imperialism used by Europe and the United States in their efforts to dominate North Africa and the so-called Middle East.27 More specific to Delacroix’s case, Linda Nochlin’s adaptation of Saidian theory to an art-historical context posited a series of absences in French pictures of North Africa and Turkey that reveal this will to domination and buttress the colonial agenda.28 In Lion Hunt, the most relevant void seems to be the absence of history, given that the painting is temporally and geographically untethered, floating in time and space (fig. 1). There are no buildings whose architectural features establish location, and the trees and vegetation are quite generic, looking more like the French countryside where Delacroix liked to spend his summers than Morocco or Algeria.29 Other signifiers of place or culture are similarly uncommunicative: Lion Hunt depicts men clad in clothing that possesses both Turkish and Moroccan stylistic elements but does not belong clearly to one or the other.30 The man in the center, for example, wears mostly Turkish dress: billowing red pantaloons, a fitted gold vest, and a thick sash wrapped around his waist. His hooded cape, however, is more similar to a Moroccan djellaba than to the tailored coats worn by Turkish men. The fallen man on the far left also wears clothing that is Turkish in every element save his turban, which is Moroccan in style. Consulting a smaller, contemporary version (fig. 3) and later copies of this painting, we can see that the figures that are now missing from the damaged 1855 canvas also wear a blend of Moroccan and Turkish garb.31
From an iconographical standpoint, the erasure of historical and even geographical specificity from Lion Hunt seemingly denies the individual subjectivity of its Arab or Turkish hunters in a manner that may sit uncomfortably with the progressive twenty-first-century viewer. Nevertheless, one should be careful about assuming that Lion Hunt is therefore Orientalist in the Saidian sense. In fact, Finlay raised the possibility that the painting should be seen as resistant to pro-colonial narratives and their pictorial counterparts, arguing that Delacroix meant to challenge contemporary characterizations of hunting in Algeria.32 This activity had recently become popularized through the exploits and publications of Jules Gérard, a French army corporal stationed in Algeria. Finlay pointed out first that Gérard, unlike Delacroix, was a French soldier who was fiercely prejudiced against Arabs, and second, that the hunts described by Gérard featured Frenchmen rather than Arabs. It is important to note here that Gérard, as a member of the Armée d’Afrique, played a direct role in the ongoing subjugation and colonization of Algeria. Delacroix, in contrast, was critical of French actions in North Africa.33 Yet, as sympathetic as I am to Finlay’s broader claim, the absence of Europeans in Delacroix’s Lion Hunt and its cognates does not, by itself, indicate anti-colonial feeling. Vernet’s Lion Hunt (fig. 4), exhibited at the Salon of 1839, depicted Algerians but did not include any Europeans. As Vernet was not just an enthusiastic supporter of the conquest of Algeria but a colonist himself,34 the absence of Europeans in his (and by extension Delacroix’s) picture reveals little about colonialist sympathies or the lack thereof. However, Finlay otherwise makes a strong case that Delacroix’s painting declined to glamorize the French role in North Africa.
While current art historical interpretations tend to pivot around iconographical concerns and their ideological implications, the contemporary criticism of Lion Hunt focused emphatically on form rather than iconography, and the terms in which it did so offer a different vantage point from which to view Delacroix’s contested modernity. While he admired the painting’s “chaos of claws,” Gautier nevertheless observed wryly that he didn’t “know what Jules Gérard would say about this manner of attacking the lion.”35 Most of the critics felt that Delacroix had gone too far in his tendency to exaggerate form and fetishize color and movement. Not only did they take issue with the painting’s inclination towards the abstract—its compositional complexity, bright colors, and serpentine movements—but they specifically linked these qualities to the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake. Eugène Balleyguier used the term explicitly when he argued that Delacroix’s oeuvre as a whole showed that “he makes l’art pour l’art.”36 In a scathing review, Maxime Du Camp argued that Delacroix was fatally obsessed with this paradigm: “Like certain authors who have created l’art pour l’art, Mr. Delacroix has invented couleur pour couleur. Humanity and history, which he seems to have seen through an immense kaleidoscope, have only been a reason for combining well-chosen shades. The subject has never been a goal for him, but only a pretext for happy coloring.” Throughout his review, Du Camp attacked Delacroix’s “exaggeration of gesture” and his fixation on color and movement.37 Claude Vignon, though somewhat more sympathetic to Delacroix’s work, also criticized his tendency towards formalism, and he argued that Lion Hunt was one of the worst examples of it: “To avoid in a painting everything that seems affected or conventional, to seek out the unexpected, to convey a scene more by the general impression of the first appearance than by physiognomic details, in consequence to preoccupy oneself above all with color and movement, such is the goal of Mr. Delacroix.”38 The claims about Delacroix’s allegiance to l’art pour l’art were not new: critics had been accusing him of this tendency as far back as 1834.39 In that sense, Lion Hunt is indeed retrospective, as Pomarède would have it, in Delacroix’s lifelong embrace of the materiality of the painted canvas. But there was more to this question of art for art’s sake than a simple reiteration of a preferred stylistic mode. More than mere formalism, Delacroix’s fascination with the material nature of the pictorial surface had a deeper resonance in 1855, one that engaged with traditional aesthetic practices, contemporary realism, and modern technologies of vision.
Delacroix and the Revision of History Painting
By the time Delacroix decided to paint a lion hunt for the Exposition universelle, he had established an extensive record as an artist who challenged and refined history painting. As a young painter in the 1820s and early 1830s, he had become notorious for the ways in which he disrupted the norms of history painting in his subject matter, use of color, and compositional tropes in paintings like Scenes from the Massacres of Chios (Salon of 1824), Death of Sardanapalus (Salon of 1827-28), Liberty Leading the People (Salon of 1831), and Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834).40 Since the late 1830s, he had turned his attention towards mural painting, a type that Marc Gotlieb has characterized as the loftiest aspiration of the ambitious nineteenth-century history painter.41 Throughout this period, history painting experienced pressure from a variety of sources, most notably the rise of genre painting, and new, hybrid forms of history painting arose in response.42 Beginning as far back as the Napoleonic era, Troubadour artists like Fleury Robert and Pierre Révoil practiced the genre historique, an amalgam of the two types that focused on anecdote and historically accurate detail. At first, the genre historique was limited to small genre scenes involving historically significant personages, but by the 1830s, it had morphed into what we might call genre-inflected history painting in the hands of Paul Delaroche and Horace Vernet. In this context, the idea of transforming a subject more typical of genre painting—the hunt scene—into a history painting like Lion Hunt can be seen both as an outgrowth of the broader changes in history painting and as another one of Delacroix’s efforts to refine history painting as a type.
One way that Delacroix’s Lion Hunt addressed the changes in history painting was though a forceful invocation of tradition, specifically the tradition of emulation. As we have seen, Lion Hunt was in some sense a reform of Rubens, but it was also in dialogue with the new taste for rococo art and, more specifically, the famous grand-manner hunt scenes of the eighteenth century. After Rubens, the most recent large-scale hunting pictures known to nineteenth-century French viewers were a suite of hunt scenes from the 1730s that Louis XV commissioned for the Petite Galerie in his petits appartements at Versailles.43 The artists who produced these paintings included François Boucher, Jean-François de Troy (fig. 5), Charles Parrocel, Nicolas Lancret, Jean-Baptiste Pater, and Carle Vanloo. While Delacroix was working on his first paintings of lion hunts in the late 1840s, the vogue for rococo art that had been building slowly since the 1830s broke into full-fledged fashionability. As Mary Sheriff has demonstrated, the return of the rococo began during the July Monarchy, thanks in part to its appeal to two distinct groups. These groups formed competing sets of interests that jockeyed for control of the style’s signification. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie, newly wealthy and impatient for power, embraced rococo works of art as emblems of wealth and aristocratic taste and prized them both for their commercial value and for their power to connote elite social status. The second group, in contrast, held a diametrically opposed view in direct confrontation with the bourgeois attempt to claim eighteenth-century art for itself. Led by critics like Théophile Gautier and, later, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, this group valued rococo art precisely for its lack of utility: its “useless beauty” enabled the pure appreciation of l’art pour l’art, in defiance of crass bourgeois commercialism.44 As we shall see, Delacroix had little enthusiasm for rococo artists, but his work (at least in the eyes of the critics) shared this anti-bourgeois tendency towards art for art’s sake.
If lion hunting had been the stuff of grand manner painting in bygone eras, its status as the subject of history painting was nevertheless rather tenuous. The rococo paintings made for the Petite Galerie served a strictly decorative purpose in which images of hunting provided a form of entertainment for the delectation of a relatively small and thoroughly aristocratic audience.45 Delacroix’s Lion Hunt, in contrast, was painted for the massive, public venue of the Exposition universelle, and it privileged the violent physical and emotional passion of the struggle between hunters and hunted. Permanently darkened by the 1871 fire that destroyed the upper third of the canvas, Lion Hunt still retains much of its former power. Even in its diminished state, the painting throbs with life. Blood glistens crimson on the tawny flank of the roaring lion, gushes from the arm of the tumbled warrior, bubbles on the rump of the dappled gray horse. These terrifying red globules echo the larger scarlet and garnet passages of the men’s clothing; red slippers, pantaloons, caps, cords, and even a cloak punctuate the canvas like so many wounds. As if to stress the intensity of the melee, Delacroix has softened the anatomies of his figures, endowing the men and horses with an almost serpentine flexibility. The fluidity of the bodies and the tautness of the muscles, both human and feline, create a sense of frenzied movement. Although the cats fight valiantly against their attackers, the men outnumber them and will soon receive at least one reinforcement from the dimly glimpsed rider, barely visible in the upper left background. The short, feathered brushstrokes Delacroix used on the lions invite us to imagine caressing the soft luxuriance of their fur, even as their sharp teeth and fearsome claws proclaim their ferocity and their autonomy from such domesticizing impulses. In contrast to the tame horses, meek victims of the conflict, the lion and the lioness retain their dignity and power. The wild, here, will not be tamed. In Lion Hunt, the heroism of the lions and the commitment of the men in the face of death are the thematic ingredients with which history painting was made, but Delacroix’s decision to resurrect the hunt as a history painting also had much to do with his response to the growing influence of realism in contemporary art.
The Problem of Realism
When Delacroix took up his journal again in January 1847 (the same year that he first began writing about Rubens and adding people to his paintings of lions), he quickly started to discuss his thoughts about the problems of adhering to the model, a shortcoming he associated with realism.46 At that time, Delacroix speculated that great painting could not be made without relying closely on nature. He revised this claim shortly thereafter when he suggested in 1849 that “there is more to painting than exactitude and precise rendering after the model.”47 In other words, the artist must strike a balance between using nature as a guideline and copying it mindlessly. By 1853, Delacroix had determined that it was better to err on the side of departing from the model: “the independence of the imagination must be uncompromised in front of the painting.”48 Over the next four years, his attitude evolved to the belief that overreliance on the model was not only a huge shortcoming in a painter but also bore the responsibility for the inferiority of contemporary French painting.49
For Delacroix, Rubens provided an excellent resolution to the conflict between realism and imagination. From the earliest moments of his examination of the shortcomings of imitation, Delacroix used Rubens as a counter-example. In early 1847, after noting that he had made a few sketches after Rubens’s hunts, he observed, “There is as much to learn from his exaggerations and his bloated forms as in exact imitations.”50 When contemplating a list of religious paintings he was working on around the same time, Delacroix wrote, “Think for these paintings of Rubens’s beautiful exaggeration of horses and men, especially in the Hunt by Soutman” (fig. 2).51 The degree to which Delacroix succeeded in his putative reform of the Old Master was a matter of debate in 1855, and most critics who wrote about Lion Hunt disapproved of the painting, sometimes in vociferous terms. They denounced it using words like “aberration,” “grotesque,” “disorder,” “confusion,” and “chaos.” Even Baudelaire, otherwise sympathetic to Delacroix’s work, used equivocal language in his assessment, calling the painting “a veritable explosion of color (may this word be taken in the right way).”52 The negative responses to the picture point to the conservatism of the critics in the face of the extraordinary energy and dynamism with which Delacroix infused the Lion Hunt. If his choice of subject—a hunt he had never witnessed—gave him an opportunity to explore a Rubensian engagement with the faculty of imagination, he emulated the fluid figures and vibrant colors of the Flemish master in a manner that waged war against the precision of realism. The heroic struggle he depicted in Lion Hunt and the departure from the observation of nature that produced it both privileged and proclaimed the role of imagination.
Delacroix’s critiques of realism have sometimes been discussed in relation to the work of Gustave Courbet, thanks in part to his apparent distaste for the younger painter’s subject matter. After seeing Courbet’s Bathers (fig. 6) in April 1853, Delacroix complained about the “vulgarity and uselessness” of the subject.53 But Delacroix’s response to Courbet’s work focused on more than just subject matter. Reflecting on Bathers five months later, he recalled seeing a landscape study in Courbet’s studio that the latter had used as the backdrop for Bathers: “When Courbet made the background for the woman who bathes, he copied it scrupulously from a study that I saw beside his easel. Nothing is colder; it is a work of marquetry.”54 In both the subject of Bathers and the putative act of copying the landscape, it was the lack of imagination behind the aesthetic choice that troubled Delacroix. Nevertheless, as both Hannoosh and Dominique de Font-Réaulx have pointed out, Delacroix admired Courbet’s painterly skill, and his quibbles with the younger artist’s realism diminished significantly after he saw Courbet’s work in 1855.55 After the machines in the Palais de l’Industrie depressed him on a visit to the Exposition in August 1855, Delacroix took solace in Courbet’s private exhibition next door: “I stay there alone for almost an hour, and I discover a masterpiece in his rejected painting [The Painter’s Studio]; I couldn’t tear myself away from the sight of it.”56 His high regard for The Painter’s Studio and other works in Courbet’s exhibition should give us pause in aligning Courbet too closely with Delacroix’s understanding of realism.
Delacroix showed less interest in the more conventional realism of Rosa Bonheur, but her work is salient here as well, particularly her enormous Horse Fair (fig. 7), which had been shown to great acclaim at the Salon of 1853.57 Measuring just over 8 by 16.5 feet, Bonheur’s depiction of a Parisian horse market celebrated the powerful equine body on a grand scale. As Delacroix would do later with his Lion Hunt, though in less violent terms, Bonheur examined the relationship between man and animal.58 While Delacroix had been no great fan of her painting Plowing in the Nivernais (Salon of 1849), he was more sympathetic to Horse Fair: in 1853, he lamented the shortcomings of the awards system that prevented Bonheur from being given a medal for it.59 Like Bonheur, Delacroix used the large format canvas more typically associated with traditional history painting for his animal painting. It is tempting to see Lion Hunt as a dialogue with Horse Fair, where the emphasis has shifted in favor of imagination and facture over realism. Speculation aside, Delacroix’s admiration for certain aspects of the work of Courbet and Bonheur suggests that he was more sympathetic to their approaches to realism—approaches that were based on the study of nature—than his criticism of realism had thus far suggested.60
While he decried the stultifying effects of realism on the imagination, Delacroix also saw it as a corrective, and he advocated for a middle path between the coldness of too much realism and the excess of what he called manière, manner or mannerism: “the fluency of the brushwork, the pretty touch.”61 In this context, he criticized rococo artists as well as his contemporaries. In 1849, for example, he asked himself why “the extreme fluency, the boldness of touch, does not shock me in Rubens” but “is nothing but a detestable practice in the Vanloos, by which I mean those of this time like those of the other. At bottom, I sense strongly that this fluency in the great master is not the main principal; that it is but the means and not the end, which is the opposite in the mediocre ones.”62 The difference between these types and Rubens, in other words, lay in the uses to which their mannerism was put. Throughout the time he was working on Lion Hunt (and just after), Vanloo and his ilk represented to Delacroix the epitome of all that was wrong with French painting in the present as well as the past. In 1857, he described the school of Boucher and Vanloo as “mannerism and the abandonment of all research and all naturalism, products of remarkable execution.”63 A few weeks later, he elaborated further on his criticism of Vanloo: “The nervous, contrived style of the Vanloos has had its day. It was nothing but mannerism and completely empty of ideas.”64 Too much focus on technical flourishes, and not enough on the intellectual substance of painting, turned the work of Vanloo and company into vapid embellishment.
Delacroix’s attack on Vanloo suggests that he was critical of rococo art in general, and, by implication, its newfound fashionability. In this sense, his Lion Hunt could be read as an attempt to correct not just the excesses of Rubens’s style but those of the rococo as well, or at least the rococo as represented by Vanloo. While there were several Vanloos in the Louvre that Delacroix might have known, the hunt scenes Vanloo painted for Louis XV were at Amiens. However, de Troy’s lion hunt for Louis XV (fig. 5) was in the Louvre, where for some time it was mislabeled as a Vanloo.65 In comparison to de Troy’s painting, with its bizarrely dog-like lions, unnaturally tranquil horses, and anachronistic hounds, Delacroix’s Lion Hunt is a marvel of naturalism. This contrast is even sharper in Vanloo’s case, particularly in his Bear Hunt (fig. 8), whose incoherent composition, unstable anatomy, and feverish, undulating lines make Delacroix’s painting look positively academic.
Hannoosh has proposed that the modern Vanloos to whom Delacroix referred were Ingres and his students, with their cold stylization of line, but Vernet surely belongs in this group as well.66 In fact, Delacroix had compared him unfavorably to Vanloo in 1847 after seeing Vernet’s suite of ceiling paintings in the Palais Bourbon: “there is a volume to write about the awful decadence that this work shows in the art of the nineteenth century. I’m speaking not only of the bad taste and the mediocre execution of the florid figures; the grisailles and the ornaments are just deplorable. In the last village in the time of Vanloo, they would have still appeared detestable.”67 The subjects of the paintings—examples of modern technology and progress—may have been unlikely to arouse Delacroix’s sympathy, but the manner in which they were painted troubled him far more. While Delacroix was likely thinking here of the lack of seriousness he despised in Vanloo, Vernet’s academic realism was precisely the sort of “cold exactitude” he complained about in his journal.
Vernet had actually exhibited in 1839 a scene of North African lion hunting (fig. 4), and his painting provides an instructive contrast to Delacroix’s. Its small scale, only 22.5 by 32 inches, is more typical of what one would expect for a nineteenth-century hunting picture. Unlike Delacroix’s opus, its color scheme is fairly neutral, with an emphasis on whites and tawny golds. Vernet’s hallmark style—his facile execution and tidy paint application—is very much in evidence here. So, too, is his popular but rather cloying sentimentality. Far from Delacroix’s representation of the hunt as a heroic struggle between lions, horses, and men, Vernet’s picture gives us cruelty with a sheen of bathos in his depiction of two lion parents trying desperately to save their cubs from the Algerian hunters who have captured them. At the apex of the composition, balanced atop an angry camel, an African man holds one cub in his lap and grasps the other by the loose skin between its shoulders. The lion, felled by one of the Arab riders, sprawls on his back nearby, a bloody, gaping wound in his side. The distraught lioness, her rosy teats engorged with milk, leaps over her injured partner as she tries to reach her cubs. Her quest will be in vain: behind her, one of the riders aims his rifle at her, another prepares to release his spear from the left, and a third—upon whom she is about to leap—thrusts his dagger into her jaw. In sharp, perhaps deliberate contrast to the manipulative sentimentality and sadism of Vernet’s work, Delacroix depicted only a lion and a lioness in a valiant battle against men and horses in which the two sides are more evenly matched. If Vernet emphasized the cruelty of his Algerian hunters, Delacroix represented his Turko-Moroccans in much more respectful terms in a pitched combat between enemies who each acknowledge the power of the other. Beyond the difference in Vernet’s iconographical treatment of the subject, however, the overblown theatricality of his composition shows signs of the mannerism Delacroix attributed to Vanloo.
If he found Vanloo and his nineteenth-century heirs to be unhappily dominated by their exaggerations of line and paint application, Delacroix also frowned upon excesses in the opposite direction: the effort to mask evidence of the artist’s hand. Vernet’s academicism falls into this category, but Delacroix also criticized the work of David and his students. Speaking of execution, Delacroix wrote:
The misfortune of the paintings of David and his school is to lack that precious quality [execution] without which the rest is imperfect and almost useless. One can admire in them great design [dessin], sometimes in composition as in Gérard, in grandeur, enthusiasm, or pathos as in Girodet, a true antique taste in David himself, in the Sabines, for example: but the charm that the hand of the worker adds to these virtues is absent from their works and places them below those of the great, recognized masters.68
Without evidence of the presence of the maker—the hand of the worker—no painting can be truly great. The smooth finish, invisible brushstrokes, and crisp lines of the paintings of David and his students disqualified them from greatness in Delacroix’s eyes. Notably, Delacroix omitted Antoine-Jean Gros, whose work he admired for its dynamic facture, vivid color, and emotional energy.69 Delacroix’s phrase—“the hand of the worker”—is deeply significant here: it betrays his commitment to the fundamental humanity of art. After seeing a machine that could make flowers at the 1855 Exposition, he remarked, “The sight of all these machines saddens me profoundly. I do not like this matter [matière] that has the appearance of making, all alone and abandoned to itself, things worthy of admiration.”70 A machine that could make beautiful aesthetic objects without any evidence of the human hand was a threat to this most painterly of artists. The hand of the worker must leave its trace.
Delacroix’s dislike for a polished, inhuman appearance in painting and his preference for the visibility of facture shaped his attitudes toward the use of modern technologies in making art. He was ambivalent, for example, about a “sketching machine” proposed by Nicolas-Amaranthe Rouillet in 1843. This contraption, essentially an enhanced screen that enabled tracing, was not mechanical in the industrial sense of the word, but it attracted controversy because of its automation of the process of drawing.71 Rouillet’s screen was central to the pedagogical method of Delacroix’s former lover, the artist Marie-Elisabeth Boulanger Cavé, known as Mme. Cavé.72 Delacroix approved of the use of this device in its pedagogical application as a tool to teach drawing to young ladies or beginning artists because it helped them to see correctly and to develop correct habits of the hand. The daguerreotype could, in Delacroix’s opinion, play a similar role.73 But for the professional artist, reliance on such a machine would smother the imagination: “a painter who draws only with the help of this machine, or of the daguerreotype, which is analogous, deprives himself this way of all inspiration.”74
Delacroix’s critiques of Rouillet’s sketching machine and the daguerreotype seem to express a milder version of the technophobia of his 1855 comments about the machines at the Exposition, but a closer examination reveals that he had a sustained, forward-looking interest in photography. Some scholars have suggested that Delacroix’s strong distaste for photography’s shortcomings in the realm of portraiture and his denial of its status as art reveal his ambivalence about photography.75 But Delacroix was far from alone in his skepticism about the new medium’s potential to be an art form. At the Exposition, for example, photography was exhibited with the industrial products rather than with the fine arts.76 In addition, his enthusiasm for photography emerged in myriad ways. In 1842, only a few years after Louis-Mandé Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot independently discovered means of permanently fixing the camera’s image, Delacroix began collecting and posing for daguerreotypes. Over the next twenty years, he would amass a collection of hundreds of photographs that he used to study and revisit both the works of the Old Masters and his own paintings.77 In 1851, he became a founding member of the Société héliographique, whose purpose was to defend and promote photography. In June 1854, while he was working on Lion Hunt, he collaborated with Eugène Durieu, an amateur photographer and the president of the society, to produce an album of calotypes.78 Over the course of two sessions with Durieu, nude models were instructed (most likely by Delacroix himself) to strike a series of poses that were then photographed. Delacroix later used the album produced by these sessions as a resource for his own practice of daily sketching.79 If he feared the negative impact on the imagination of overreliance on the photographic image and disparaged the daguerreotype for its crispness and merciless revelation of flaws, Delacroix was enthusiastic about the calotype. As Sylvie Aubenas has argued, the softened contour lines, faint blurring, and textural quality of the calotype made it highly compatible with Delacroix’s preference for maintaining enough space between the eye of the painter and the model being observed to allow imagination to flourish.80
Lion Hunt: Retrograde Tapestry or Prophecy of Abstraction?
In Lion Hunt, Delacroix sought to strike a balance between the stultifying, even dehumanizing effects of realism and the excesses of formalism. His ambitions for Lion Hunt were partially recognized by critics, but most felt that he had gone too far in his embrace of l’art pour l’art. To some extent, the critical failure of Lion Hunt at the Exposition suggests its success as a vehicle for Delacroix’s interest in demonstrating the importance of imagination and hand in modern painting. The 1855 critique of Delacroix’s Lion Hunt for its commitment to art for art’s sake echoed nineteenth-century debates about the newly revived rococo, and the rococo lurked in the subtext of some of the critical responses. Du Camp, for example, argued that Delacroix was nothing but a “painter-decorator” rather than the history painter he aspired to be. This emphasis on decoration evokes the rococo artists who had adorned the interior of Louis XV’s Petite Galerie with their exotic hunt scenes. So, too, did the comparison of Lion Hunt to tapestry. Pierre Petroz was the first to describe it as such: “this chaos of red, green, violet, and yellow tones, all having the same value, makes the Lion Hunt look like a tapestry.”81 Du Camp echoed this characterization in his own criticism: “this painting looks like a high-warp tapestry that has been hung upside down.”82 In their references to tapestry, the two critics took issue with the abstraction of Delacroix’s painting—its lack of illusionistic pictorial space, its absence of persuasive figural modeling, and its emphasis on color. If Petroz and Du Camp used Lion Hunt’s putative similarity to tapestry to critique Delacroix’s picture, Edmond About embraced the comparison and used it to defend the painting vigorously:
The Lion Hunt is nothing less than a decoration of the greatest brilliance: at the Gobelins, it would be made into the most beautiful of tapestries. Forgive Mr. Delacroix for making, from time to time, like Rubens, decorative painting; forgive him for painting the russet mane of lions more willingly than the satiny skin of petites dames in corsets; forgive him for preferring fearsome subjects to amusing subjects.83
In contrasting Delacroix’s picture with coy paintings of sexually available women, About made the case that Lion Hunt was more than a genre painting. The metaphor of the tapestry used by About and others also evoked a bygone era, one in which complex, decorative objects were made at hand looms by individual artisans. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, the notion of tapestry would seem to anticipate a Matisse-like flatness and patterning.
Benjamin has argued that the “doctrine” of l’art pour l’art was a reaction to the birth of photography and the rise of socialism, and he connected the uniqueness or aura of the work of art to its embedding “in the fabric of tradition.”84 In its emulation of Rubens and, to a lesser extent, the rococo artists, Delacroix’s Lion Hunt was rooted in a premodern tradition of grand-manner hunt paintings. In the realm of style, Delacroix’s embrace of color and movement established Lion Hunt’s distinctiveness from photography and from what he perceived as realism, whether excessively indebted to the model (in the case of Courbet or Bonheur) or mannered (in the case of Vernet). Despite the potential conservativism of such an approach, at least one critic saw Lion Hunt as a threat to the bourgeois social order. Thus Balleyguier argued that Delacroix “expressed the movement of the revolution” in his work, and he linked what he called the excess of movement in contemporary French society to revolutionary behavior and an absence of nobility.85
Given Delacroix’s position on realism and taking into account the critical responses to Lion Hunt, what emerges clearly is a staunch commitment to painting—to its status as an aesthetic object made by a human being rather than a machine. The writhing, struggling bodies of men and horses, the floating ground of the battlefield, and the varied size of the brushstrokes bear witness to the hand of the artist-worker. Delacroix’s vibrant palette declared its allegiance to painting with equal vigor. Though the brightness of his colors is somewhat difficult to discern on the fire-damaged surface of Lion Hunt, their radiance can be seen more clearly in the contemporaneous sketch he made (fig. 3) and in the later variants now in Boston and Chicago. When he called attention to Delacroix’s rejection of realism by observing that he didn’t know what Gérard would say about “this manner of attacking the lion,” Gautier also gave an unintentional testimonial to the painting as an exemplar of Delacroix’s robust imagination and distinctive execution. In the epic format of Lion Hunt, Delacroix offered an alternative form of history painting, one that recognized the dignity of animals, defended the presence of hand in art, and proclaimed the merits of painting in an age of industrialization.