One of the most prominent innovators in the history of French art, Eugène Delacroix embodies the spirit of Romanticism. During a career that spanned 40 years, Delacroix channeled his restless creativity into works inspired by literature, religion, history, nature, and other themes.
Again and again, he returned to the subject of animals, taking inspiration from their forms as well as their spirit. Varied creatures appear (and recur) throughout his oeuvre of drawings, the subject of the new exhibition Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix. They provide a window into his practice and his way of documenting on paper his vision of the world.
Drawing for Delacroix served as both way to record the movements of subjects (human or animal) as he observed them, and a way to portray subjects as he remembered them. His drawings thus serve as a visual testament to his emphasis on subjectivity in art—a hallmark of Romanticism. One sheet from the Karen B. Cohen Collection illustrates this double-sided approach to draftsmanship, with the recto bearing carefully observed details of horses at rest, and the verso showing the artist’s imagining of a vigorous equestrian event.
Delacroix paid repeated visits to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes to observe live animals, as well as to the menagerie at Saint-Cloud, where he could get close-up views of embalmed animal cadavers. While his lions and tigers displayed anatomical accuracy, he looked to house and alley cats to capture feline movements and poses.
“Tigers, panthers, jaguars, lions, etc. Why is it that these things have stirred me so much?,” wrote Delacroix in his journal in 1847. “Can it be because I have gone outside the every thoughts that are my world; away from the street that is my entire universe?”
Edgar Degas, a major Delacroix collector of the 19th century (at least seven drawings in the Karen B. Cohen Collection once belonged to the Impressionist), saluted the Romantic master’s subjective approach to drawing. “It’s good to copy what one sees, but it’s much better to draw what one only sees in one’s memory,” Degas wrote. “It’s a transformation during which ingenuity collaborates with memory. You only reproduce what strikes you, that is, what is necessary.”
A depiction of a figure from a poem by Byron, The Giaour on Horseback is a tour de force of the expressive potential of line and ink. As the titular Venetian warrior charges in to rescue his lover from the harem of an Ottoman tyrant, Delacroix conveys the motion of his weapons and the speed of his steed through but a few flicks of the brush.
A new catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, Devotion to Drawing includes over 100 illustrations from Karen B. Cohen’s priceless gift, as well as scholarly essays. Buy the book at store.metmuseum.org.