Delacroix may be the last great painter who cannot be approached within a modernist framework. He does not have Manet's irony or Cezanne's doubt. Although even a relatively modest work like ''Marfisa'' contains breathtaking patches of paint, form was too much in the service of content for Delacroix to be enlisted in the cause of art for art's sake or pure painting.
In addition, he believed too strongly in an aristocracy of cultural achievement, and he had too strong a sense of the human heart as a fierce and turbulent arena - sometimes his humans and beasts seem interchangeable - for his work to engage critics and artists for whom art can only be justified in the service of social progress.
Delacroix had a complexity and a blend of radicalism and conservatism that is almost characteristic of great 19th-century French painters. Born in 1798, the son of an elderly father who was a lawyer and ambassador, rumored to be in fact the illegitimate son of Talleyrand, Delacroix was raised both in privilege and in poverty. He could be aloof and fastidious, and yet so sensitive that art that moved him could literally make him bolt through the streets.
His art was remarkably thoughtful and refined, yet he did not betray his early declaration: ''I have no love for reasonable painting.'' He brought to a temperament that could be melancholic an uncompromising intelligence and a will of steel. He could put life on the barricades in the service of an abstract ideal, and he could give abstract ideals the flesh and blood of the streets.
Delacroix was always after everything. He may have been the last major artist who was committed to the idea of a great synthesis, and who believed that this synthesis could be achieved in paint. His work has a range of textures and sensations, and a density of feeling that has rarely been equaled.
In the small, magisterial painting of Niccolo Paganini, the play of brushstrokes and light and the swing of the violinist's enraptured body transform paint into visual sound. Delacroix's 1838 portrait of his friend George Sand, which remained in his studio until his death in 1863, rocks back and forth with the heavy, tender and delicate rhythms of a lullaby or poem.
In the 1831 ''Interior of a Dominican Convent in Madrid,'' it is possible almost to feel the moisture and coldness of the towering stone vault as a young man is dragged on his knees before the inquisitor. If the way the tiny figure struggles within this impersonality and silence suggests romantic isolation, the painting also seems like a self-portrait: the controlling and impersonal stone is the facade, the frantic figure the fierce, convulsive heart pounding inside.
In Delacroix's paintings of animals, the emotions are so finished, so resolutely felt, that the paintings themselves seem to lash out or stalk or hiss. Picasso's animals grow out of Delacroix. The seeds of his Minotaur imagery are in a work like the 1856 pen drawing, ''Fight Between Lion and a Tiger,'' which is not in the show. The roles in Picasso's bullfights are already defined in a painting like Delacroix's 1858 ''Lion Hunt,'' with its frightened horses, with a horseman's spear raised like the spear of a picador, with another horseman's sword about to fall like the blade of a matador, and with its lions as savagely singleminded as bulls.
So with all the questions that can be raised about him, Delacroix now needs to be seen. At a time when completeness in any form is hard to imagine, it is welcome to encounter someone whose work is so much of a piece. While many contemporary artists are struggling to retain the possibilility of faith at a time of relentless analysis and reduction, it is useful to encounter an artist for whom the full and finished statement never ceased to be an artistic and ethical goal.
Delacroix came out of the academic tradition. He shared with neoclassicism a belief in the classical unities of time, place and action, but he took the ideal moment and changed it. In his paintings the moment in which everything reveals itself is inhabited by the passions and blood of women and men. Whether the subject was Christ, immobile yet glowing on the cross, or a crazed Medea with her terrified children, Delacroix brought religious and mythical subjects down to earth, made the emotions in them ours. This was his realism, and it is as important historically as painting workers, fields and streets.
He achieved his revolution largely through color. In neoclassical painting, form and composition were outlined and then filled in with color. Delacroix did the reverse. It was only after he had the color - in other words, only after he had the feeling that would carry and explain his theme - that he turned to contour, which in his most painterly works does not sit on or enclose color but throbs with its energy or charges through it like a current.
Along with his study of complementary color, this approach was crucial to the Impressionists; by including four of the seven versions of ''Christ on the Sea of Galilee,'' the exhibition suggests that Delacroix also provided a precedent for the idea of the artistic series that would become so important to Monet and others. Delacroix's approach also paved the way for Cezanne's drawing with color and the eventual conflict in Cezanne's work between color and contour, which triggered the split between color and line that has been so consequential for 20th-century art.
It is primarily because of color that Delacroix's work is so different from what it seems. Color is embedded so deeply in the fabric of his painting that it becomes its soul. Because of what van Gogh referred to as the ''blended tones of Delacroix,'' his color may seem to shift, darken and lighten as we observe the painting. His color emerges and speaks, sometimes overpoweringly, but always indirectly, like music, breathing inside his paintings like emotions inside skin.
For all the outward speed and spectacle, then, Delacroix is a painter's painter. The exhibition in Zurich needs to be approached in the same way as the ''Age of Correggio and the Carracci,'' which closed last month at the Metropolitan Museum - that is to say, with attentiveness and patience. If visitors are going to expect paintings that will immediately hit them over the head, they may as well stay home.
Delacroix's work is not without problems. His ambition was such, his confidence in his ability to challenge the masters so absolute, that his large works and salon paintings could be overdone. He occasionally resented making small paintings, and a number of works in the show are mediocre. And any artist who gives everything he has, all the time, runs the risk of earnestness and repetition.
The exhibition, too, has its problems. It is about two galleries too big. Without landmark works, the decision to use other large paintings to anchor the show is a mistake. Paintings such as the 1831 ''Battle of Nancy,'' the 1845 ''Abd al-Rahman, Sultan of Morocco, Leaving his Palace at Meknes,'' and the ''Four Seasons'' of 1862-63, do not deliver the kind of resolution that their prominent placement promises. The exhibition would have been better off focusing completely on smaller works. But this show is a bold achievement, and it is unfortunate that its strengths and weaknesses could not have been debated in the United States.
After closing at the Kunsthaus in Zurich on Aug. 23., the exhibition, with a different selection of works on paper, will be in the Stadtische Galerie im Stadelschen Kunstitut in Frankfurt from Sept. 24 to Jan. 10. The catalogue essay and entries were written by Lee Johnson, who has just published the third and fourth volumes of a critical catalogue. The show is accompanied by exhibitions of art by Victor Hugo and photographs of Paris and mid-19th century French cultural figures.Continue reading the main story
As early as September 15, 1821, Delacroix had thought of using the desperate revolt of the Greeks against the Turks, begun in 1820, as the subject for a painting, and had confided this intention to his friend Raymond Soulier: "I plan to do for the next Salon a picture for which I will take the subject from the recent wars between the Turks and Greeks. I believe that, in the present circumstances, if there is any quality in the execution of the work, it will be a way to distinguish myself". However, the artist postponed the execution of his project and in the interim, in April, 1822, there were the terrible massacres on the island of Chios, in which twenty thousand people died. Delacroix perhaps found his inspiration in the facts related in the Memoires of Colonel Voutier, a French officer in the Greek forces, with whom he was in contact.
With this canvas, Delacroix takes his place as the leader of the Romantic school of painting. His palette has become considerably lighter since The Barque of Dante. He has acquired a freer manner, in which one can note the use of hatchings and a deeper knowledge of the reflection of light.
In the luminous landscape, scorched with sun, which reveals an amazing sense of spatial values, the groups of dying people are reminiscent of those in the Pest Hospital at Jaffa of Gros, whose disapproval we have nevertheless already noted, while the Turkish officer carrying off a woman is close to Gericault's Officer of the Chasseurs of the Guard.
The lyricism of the colors combines with the Baroque plasticity of the forms to make us forget how easily the subject might have been limited to mere anecdote. As Baudelaire wrote in his Art Romantique: "In this work, all is desolation, massacre, and fire; everything bears witness to the eternal and incorrigible barbarism of man. Burnt-out and smoking cities, slaughtered vicitims, raped women, even children stabbed or thrown beneath the feet of horses, frenzied mothers; this whole work, I say, seems like a terrifying hymn composed to celebrate doom and irremediable suffering."