Marcus Cunliffe on American literature Reviews by Allan Beattie, Leonard Schapiro Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Isabel Quigly and Auberon Waugh
Michael Holroyd on Delacroix
Selected Letters 1813-1863 by Eugene Delacroix edited and translated by Jean Stewart with an introduction by John Rus- sell (Eyre and Sportiswoode £7.50) At a dinner for writers and artists some time ago, my neighbour—an author— dolefully remarked that you could pick out the writers from among the gathering at a single glance: they were the ones with the sad faces. The general truth of his observation would seem to be con- firmed by this edition of Delacroix's sparkling letters. Was there ever a literary artist of equivalent stature who main- tained so happy an equilibrium? That Delacroix experienced the same sort of difficulties which confront most authors is apparent from much of this correspond- ence. 'I am a prey to a state of nerves that makes me like an hysterical woman.' he confided to a friend. 'Solitude, and my still precarious health and perhaps, as 1 be- lieve, a particular crisis in my tempera- ment, make me want and not want, and turn the simplest matters into something monstrous.' The choice, so often, seemed between anxiety and boredom. 'What ardour I must bring to my study to allev- iate that ennui,' he wrote. Then his mood would change and he longed for the peace of indifference, for apathetic serenity. `Alas, that state of mental health is un- known to me,' he told George Sand. '1 am continually wounded by a thousand pinpricks at which most men would laugh. The slightest trifles make me happy, while on the other hand I have mountains of worries.' It was no wonder he complained of being unable to 'gov- ern myself' and of being 'always either up in the air or down in the depths'.
Yet. to judge from his letters, it is at this very self-government that Delacroix excelled. The strong contradictory impul- ses between the claims of society and the individual, between passion and patience, body and mind, nature and human nat- ure he kept in superb suspension. How was it done? 'Whatever 1 happen to be doing in the way of painting gives me such pleasure that it comforts me for all the ills, great and small, that life inces- santly offers', he explained. 'Living alone, and deprived of great joys, but also free from the sometimes excessive griefs which one suffers through members of one's family, 1 have plenty of time to give to that art which will delight me as long as I live.' It is this quality of enjoyment that resolves the contradictions and carries him through, a sensuous physical enjoy- ment in the application of paint. Some- times the work overtired him, sometimes it disappointed him. Many sacrifices had to be made. It placed a barrier between him and the appreciation of pleasures he would otherwise have relished. For if his work did not go well. everything was spoiled. 'It seems to me that one should have fulfilled one's task in order to enjoy with a clear conscience the good things that nature offers one. A great argument for work !' Guilt so mantled him that even a cigar was 'an agent of corruption'. Yet despite the price that had to be paid, he was in no doubt that `I'm fortunate to practise an art in which I find such true enjoyment and interest'.
These letters form a valuable comple- ment to Delacroix's famous Journal. They cover other periods of his life and many subjects other than his painting. Since he turned to his diary mostly in moods of uncertainty or pessimism, these letters also reveal different facets of his personality. above all his extraordinary adjustment to the rigours of the artist's life. They have been selected from some six volumes in French with a view to showing all the varied aspects of his temperament. Very occasionally letters will overlap and some incident is described twice—but only when such descriptions arc extremely good. One feels that the editor. Miss Jean Stewart, has a loving knowledge of her subject. Her translation is marvellously fluent and sym- pathetic. warm yet very exact.
As a young man Delacroix was dazzled by the twin dreams of love and ambition —was not one the raw material for the other? He is always falling in love as every- one, except rogues, must. In the brief inter- vals when he is not in love he feels dead and the world is empty. 'I am miserable, I am not in love with anyone,' he writes to his friend Charles Soulier during one of these profitless spells. '1 cannot be happy, lacking that delicious torment. I have only vain dreams that disturb me and satisfy nothing at all. I was so happy when I was unhappily in love! There was something exciting even in my jealousy, and in my present state I am no better than a living corpse. In order to live truly, in my own way, that is to say through my feelings and passions. I am ob- liged to seek these joys from painting, to wrest them from my art by force. But this is not nature's way, and when I fall back on my empty heart, weighed down by an en- nui that I've beguiled and distracted by arti- ficial means, I feel only too well that my flame needs sustenance and that I should paint very differently if I were kept con- stantly in suspense by the sweet excitement of love.'
To keep his heart filled with this fuel of love he needed to involve himself in life; but to paint great pictures he needed seclu- sion and detachment. Expressed crudely, the problem was that the more you put into women the less you can put into your work. Yet if you cut yourself off entirely you have nothing with which to charge your work. Delacroix succeeded perfectly in balancing his appetite for sex with his appetite for work. His erotic feelings were sublimated on to the canvas, so that he almost made love in terms of paint. 'It is an amazing thing,' he noted in his diary in April 1924, 'but al- though I wanted to make love to Laurie all the time she was posing for me, I lost all heart for it the moment she began to leave.' The synthesis between the opposing demands of love and work came to him in the form of fantasy. The essence of this was a trick of time. He would expose himself to delicious and terrible moments, then quickly retire. 'It often happens to me that a mental ex- perience, of whatever sort, only affects me after the event, and when I am by myself or
withdrawn into the seclusion of my own mind I feel the effect all the more power-
fully because the cause is removed,' he told his friend Achille Piron. 'That is when my imagination gets to work and, unlike sight, it makes things seem larger the further away they are. I reproach myself for not having fully enjoyed the moment that chance had granted me; I build fantastic castles in the air, and go off roaming and wandering on the boundless and shoreless sea of illusions.'
The urge to paint which gave him this self-control was very strong and, at first, as generously romantic as the urge to love.
'Pray heaven that I may be a great man,' he exclaimed to Achille Piron; 'and may
heaven do the same to you.' But he was not vain. Fame, popularity, the approval of critics did not obsess him. 'The praises of others have never made more than an im- perfect impression on me,' he told J.-B. Pierret. His criticism of his friends' work is never flattering, but sympathetic, and usually constructive in suggesting improvements. He was not unaffected by criticism, but does not seem to have allowed himself the artistic licence of paranoia. 'It's this terrible Art which is the cause of all our sufferings, not
to mention all the envious and spiteful rascals who look askance at our wretched works before they're done,' he complained to George Sand. 'Fortunately we do them
partly for our own sakes, very little for the sake of posterity, which I haven't the honour of knowing, but chiefly to help us forget our troubles a little.'
To steer clear of these troubles, Delacroix was always praying God to 'make me be-
come as unsociable as possible,' always pro- claiming that '1 am going to become a re-
cluse'. In his excellent introduction to this volume John Russell warns us that we can be misled by this repeated longing 'for a modest, withdrawn, slippered existence'. A letter from Prosper Merimee to Stendhal recount- ing an orgiastic evening with six girls running through some gymnastic exercises in purls naturalibus describes Delacroix as 'beside himself—puffing and blowing as if he wan- ted to take on the whole six of them at once'.
Delacroix distrusted critics. Most often they wanted to prove something, valuing only by their artificial rules in terms of schools and movements, and discounting beauty for its own sake. So much of what painters did was, in any event, irrelevant to judgments in words. Undeniably Delacroix's imagination was luxuriously romantic, and, along with Berlioz and Victor Hugo, his- torians have placed him as one of the most brilliant members of the Romantic Move- ment in France. Such labelling, though not inaccurate, tends to blur Delacroix's indi- viduality, to reduce him in the interests of consistency. In many respects he was aus- terely unromantic: his manners were polite and rather self-conscious; his way of life often very frugal, his clothes sober, his appearance ultimately un-Byronic. The music of Berlioz he called 'an appalling row, a kind of heroic mish-mash'; and of Victor Hugo he said that 'he never came within a hundred miles of truth and simplicity'. Elsewhere, in a letter to Madame Cave, he wrote: 'Truth is so close to the parody of truth that it is not surprising that they are often mistaken for one another: which caused the ruin and confusion of the so-called Romantic school, or rather, as you say, the word school means nothing; truth in the arts concerns only the person who writes or paints or composes, in any genre whatsoever.° Many of his tastes— his preference for the simple style of Saint- Real over Chateaubriand's rhetorical infla- tion—appear to have more in common with the Classical tradition. He possessed, too, a vein of philosophical self-mockery, inamic- able to pure romance. 'I have taken up horse riding,' he writes on one occasion. `Mr Elmore, who has shown me the utmost kind- ness, is my riding-master. I show great apti- tude. I even looked like breaking my neck on two or three occasions:But it all helps to form one's character.'
Delaci oix was a natural writer. His letters are written in a prose that waits to be loaded with every nuance of what he wishes to say, that carries often in a single sentence humour and seriousness, pathos, intelligence and much charm. It waits, but it also moves, rhythmically, perfectly attuned to its mean- ing.
Success came to Delacroix at last in 1857 when, after twenty years and six failures, he was elected to the Institut. He was almost sixty and had six years to live. 'You say quite rightly that this success, twelve years earlier, would have given me far greater pleasure.' he wrote to Constant Dutilleux. 'I would then have had a chance to prove myself more useful than 1 can be today, in such a position.' He had never played art- politics—'What do petty rivalries matter? I have never worried much about them,' he
told Paul Huet—but he was an ambassador of painting and took recognition by the Establishment with graceful responsibility. In these last years the numbness of old age affected him increasingly. He was constantly unwell; nothing was left of love; many of his friends had died; he was a prey to dis- illusionment—to 'the despair of maturity'. Yet age was one more stimulus for work, and he felt 'firmly convinced that the mind grows towards perfection'. Nothing en- chanted him now except painting. Painting was life—the supreme tonic that gave him resignation and real satisfaction. And so, when the man died, the painter still lived on.
Michael Holroyd is the biographer of Hugh Kingsmill and Lytton Strachey, and is work- ing on a life of Augustus John