Cover image for Exiled in Modernity: Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism By David O'Brien

Exiled in Modernity

Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism

David O'Brien


$112.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07859-5

Available as an e-book

240 pages
8" × 10"
53 color/45 b&w illustrations

Exiled in Modernity

Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism

David O'Brien

“Combining careful readings of Delacroix's paintings and prose, David O'Brien offers fascinating insights into the artist's perception of the modern world and its disenchantment. The figure that emerges is complex, conflicted, and driven by a deep ambivalence toward civilization. O’Brien successfully renews our vision of Delacroix by elaborating a subtle dialogue between formal analysis and intellectual biography.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Notions of civilization and barbarism were intrinsic to Eugène Delacroix’s artistic practice: he wrote regularly about these concepts in his journal, and the tensions between the two were the subject of numerous paintings, including his most ambitious mural project, the ceiling of the Library of the Chamber of Deputies in the Palais Bourbon. Exiled in Modernity delves deeply into these themes, revealing why Delacroix’s disillusionment with modernity increasingly led him to seek spiritual release or epiphany in the sensual qualities of painting.

While civilization implied a degree of control and the constraint of natural impulses for Delacroix, barbarism evoked something uncontrolled and impulsive. Seeing himself as part of a grand tradition extending back to ancient Greece, Delacroix was profoundly aware of the wealth and power that set nineteenth-century Europe apart from the rest of the world. Yet he was fascinated by civilization’s chaotic underbelly. In analyzing Delacroix’s art and prose, David O’Brien illuminates the artist’s effort to reconcile the erudite, tradition-bound aspects of painting with a desire to reach viewers in a more direct, unrestrained manner. Focusing chiefly on Delacroix’s musings about civilization in his famous journal, his major mural projects on the theme of civilization, and the place of civilization in his paintings of North Africa and of animals, O’Brien links Delacroix’s increasingly pessimistic view of modernity to his desire to use his art to provide access to a more fulfilling experience.

With more than one hundred illustrations, this original, astute analysis of Delacroix and his work explains why he became an inspiration for modernist painters over the half-century following his death. Art historians and scholars of modernism especially will find great value in O’Brien’s work.

“Combining careful readings of Delacroix's paintings and prose, David O'Brien offers fascinating insights into the artist's perception of the modern world and its disenchantment. The figure that emerges is complex, conflicted, and driven by a deep ambivalence toward civilization. O’Brien successfully renews our vision of Delacroix by elaborating a subtle dialogue between formal analysis and intellectual biography.”
“David O'Brien makes an original and compelling argument about Delacroix’s treatment of civilization and barbarism. He shows masterfully how this prominent theme reflects the painter's grappling with modernity, with consequences for his conception and practice of painting. The result is a new perspective on some of Delacroix’s most interesting works, including a brilliant chapter on his paintings of wild animals and another on his North African subjects. This is a crucial addition to the literature on Delacroix and on nineteenth-century art more generally.”
“A thoughtful, wide-ranging, and utterly relevant exploration of Delacroix’s own version of the clash of civilizations, rooted in the artist’s reading of history and in his attitudes and convictions regarding human nature. In a suite of elegant and illuminating demonstrations, David O’Brien shows how Delacroix’s thinking, as it developed, powerfully shaped key pictures by the artist—just as they in turn shaped the attitudes of Delacroix’s audiences.”
“A beautiful, well-researched volume on 19th-century French painter Eugene Delacroix’s general philosophy and specific paintings.”
“O’Brien has provided a model for art historians after the cultural turn in the humanities, reinserting a sensitive assessment and analysis of style into the making of meaning.”
“O’Brien’s book puts forward a strong and convincing argument eloquently supported by his insightful reading of Delacroix’s writing, aptly and enticingly paired with his paintings. The painter’s invocation of primitive realms in counterpoint to his dark view of modernity resonates throughout nineteenth-century culture and art, as it still does to this day.”
“As a threshold figure and an artist of paradoxes, Delacroix will probably always remain somewhat elusive. But under O’Brien’s masterly care, the artist is rendered more scrutable. . . . This thoughtful examination of Eugène Delacroix’s meditations in prose and paint will be of use to scholars in many fields, but especially to those eager to put aside conventional ways of framing the mid-nineteenth-century French art world and to embrace its complexities.”

David O’Brien is Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros, Painting, and Propaganda under Napoleon, also published by Penn State University Press.


List of Illustrations



1. Delacroix’s Civilization

2. Civilization and Mural Painting

3. The Primitive and the Civilized in North Africa

4. Delacroix’s Wild Kingdom


Appendix: The Paintings in the Library of the Bourbon Palace




From the Introduction

Civilization and barbarism were central, guiding ideas in the artistic practice of Eugène Delacroix. He wrote about them constantly in his journal, and they were the subject of his most ambitious mural project, the ceiling of the Library of the Chamber of Deputies in the Palais Bourbon, as well as numerous other paintings, both major and minor. Delacroix profoundly admired the achievements of European civilization: he saw himself as part of a long, grand tradition extending back to ancient Greece, and he was highly cognizant of the wealth and power that set Europe apart from the rest of the world in the nineteenth century. At the same time, civilization’s underbelly fascinated him. Like many in his generation, he was drawn to past monuments of art and literature and new forms of popular culture that dwelt on horrendous acts of violence and cruelty. He saw barbarism as an inextricable aspect of human nature, doubted the permanence of civilization, and even felt that modernity was in certain respects a return to barbarism. Many of his most important paintings, especially early on, explore episodes of horrific barbarism: rape, murder, torture, injustice, and degradation of all sorts. A partial list of such works—Scenes from the Massacre of Chios, The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero, The Death of Sardanapalus, The Murder of the Bishop of Liège, Medea About to Kill Her Children, The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, The Abduction of Rebecca, The Two Foscari—reads like a latter-day itinerary through hell. While some of his paintings located the threat to civilization outside its borders, others saw it born within, as part and parcel of civilization itself. As Charles Baudelaire summed it up, “His works contain nothing but devastation, massacres, conflagrations; everything bears witness against the eternal incorrigible barbarity of man. Burnt and smoking cites, slaughtered victims, ravished women, the very children cast beneath the hooves of horses or menaced by the dagger of a distracted mother—the whole body of this painter’s works, I say, is like a terrible hymn composed in honor of destiny and irremediable anguish.” Baudelaire admitted that occasionally Delacroix “found it possible to devote his brush to the expression of tender and voluptuous feelings,” but he was right to emphasize the painter’s “Molochism.”

Delacroix was, in short, profoundly ambivalent about the idea of civilization. This ambivalence is especially poignant in a late painting, his Ovid Among the Scythians (fig. 1) of 1859, which depicts the Roman poet in exile, greeted by the barbarous inhabitants of the region on the northern edges of the Black Sea. It would be hard to overestimate Delacroix’s admiration for Ovid, whose poetry inspired many of his paintings, including such major works as the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre. Perhaps for this reason, commentators have often interpreted his paintings of Ovid’s banishment by the emperor Augustus as another example of the misunderstood artist, or the artist mistreated by officialdom, subjects that Delacroix explored in other paintings, most famously in his Tasso in the Hospital of St. Anna (1839, Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur). The subject also offered an opportunity to contrast Ovid’s refinement and sophistication with the rude manners of a people who have not really entered into civilization at all. The picture might be read as a meditation on exile, even an allegory for the predicament of an artist like Delacroix, devoted to the grand tradition and artistic achievement in a modern society where these things seemed to count for less and less.

But none of these interpretations addresses the really distinctive aspects of the painting. To begin with, Ovid appears weak in relation to the Scythians who come to his aid. Delacroix’s short description of the painting in the Salon livret focuses on the Scythians: “Some study [Ovid] curiously; others welcome him after their fashion and offer him wild fruits, mare’s milk, etc.” In relation to the vigorous, muscular Scythians, Ovid’s features and curving recumbent pose appear decidedly effeminate. Ovid has the sort of strange, convoluted, almost misshapen body Delacroix often used for figures in distress. His clothes (blue and white, like those of the Virgin Mary) contrast with the savages’ seminudity, his white shoes with their bare or simply clad feet. He awkwardly spreads his scroll—writing, culture—on the ground, while they are completely at home in nature. They exist on the fringe of civilization—their architecture consists of huts with thatched roofs; their animals appear barely domesticated; presumably they still hunt and gather much of their food; their clothing, adornments, and weapons are crude—yet they hardly appear to suffer for it. For all their primitiveness, they appear kind and strong.

Delacroix does not seem to have drawn upon Ovid’s own descriptions of Scythia, which criticize the barbarism of its inhabitants and the harshness of its climate, but upon that in Strabo’s Geography, which refers specifically to wild fruit and mare’s milk. Strabo makes no mention of Ovid, but significantly, he emphasizes that the Scythians were not the frightening savages described in other accounts, who “sacrificed strangers, ate their flesh, and used their skulls as drinking vessels.” They were indeed primitive: “In fact, even now there are Wagon-dwellers and Nomads, so called, who live off their herds, and on milk and cheese, and particularly on cheese made from mare’s milk, and know nothing about storing up food or about peddling merchandise either, except the exchange of wares for wares.” Strabo uses this last detail to launch into a defense of the Scythians, turning their primitiveness into a virtue. He suggests that Homer had found them “most just” and “proud” because they did not “spend their lives on contracts and money-getting but actually possess[ed] all things in common except sword and drinking-cup, and above all things [had] their wives and their children in common, in the Platonic way.” He then offers an extended critique of the commercial aspects of his own Greek culture and its spread to barbarian outposts like Scythia:

“We [contemporary Greeks] regard the Scythians as the most straightforward of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are. And yet our mode of life has spread its change for the worse to almost all peoples, introducing amongst them luxury and sensual pleasures and, to satisfy these vices, base artifices that lead to innumerable acts of greed. So then, much wickedness of this sort has fallen on the barbarian peoples also, on the Nomads as well as the rest; for as the result of taking up a seafaring life they not only have become morally worse, indulging in the practice of piracy and of slaying strangers, but also, because of their intercourse with many peoples, have partaken of the luxury and the peddling habits of those peoples. But though these things seem to conduce strongly to gentleness of manner, they corrupt morals and introduce cunning instead of the straightforwardness that I just now mentioned.”

It is impossible to know if this passage was on Delacroix’s mind when he painted Ovid Among the Scythians, but by 1859 he was prone to criticize modernity in similar terms. He had embraced a type of primitivism himself.

Delacroix wrote the title of his painting, Ovid Among the Scythians, next to the following undated passage in one of his notebooks: “Setting for the story about the feelings of a heart and of a sick imagination, those of a man who, after living a worldly life, finds himself the slave of barbarians, or cast onto a desert island like Robinson, forced to use the strength of his body and his industry—which brings him back to natural feelings and calms his imagination” (1552). Neither of the scenarios envisioned in this passage—enslaved by barbarians or marooned on a desert island—describes exactly what has happened to Ovid in the painting, but Delacroix obviously saw in the subject something of the same confrontation between the urbane and the uncouth, the effete and the healthy, and the last phrase suggests an embrace of nature and physical activity in the vein of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Delacroix often read.

The taste for nature extends beyond the narrative, into the landscape, which, exceptionally in the case of Delacroix, almost dominates the painting. Théophile Gautier was exactly right when he explained to Salon-goers that the painting was “a kind of historical landscape” in which “the landscape has as much importance as the figures.”

What a magnificent, capacious landscape it is! The lake and mountains immediately establish the breadth and depth of the space, both in their lateral sweep and their nuanced atmospheric perspective, created out of every conceivable shade of blue and green. The eye moves easily into the picture: the diminishing size of figures guides it into the landscape, to the lake, and then to the distant valley stretching toward the horizon. The distance is measured by the alternating bands of light and dark pigment and by the overlapping ridges of mountains. The marvelous sky, with its white highlights on the clouds near the horizon, guides us back as well. Small passages of various colors and handling animate the landscape, suggesting changes in terrain or vegetation while remaining deliciously, yet frustratingly, vague. Are those trees or bushes indicated by the band of dark green on the far right side of the lake? Is there a beach or a shallows at the right edge of the lake? Is the distant valley marshy, as Strabo described Scythia, or is it forested? What does the patch of dark blue in the valley represent (fig. 2)?

The more one explores the landscape, the more its painterly qualities become of interest in their own right. The textured, sensual handling calls attention to itself. It is often difficult to tell, at any distance from the painting, exactly how a particular color is formed, especially in the mountains, where soft, semitransparent strokes of muted pigments interact with those underneath and around them (fig. 3). Examined up close, the painting offers all sorts of interesting incidents. Bits of bright primary color appear here and there: a trace of yellow in the central green hill, a bit of red at the base of the mountain above the horse’s head, the touches of red, yellow, and blue in the central valley (fig. 2).

The ridgelines of the lower mountains are emphasized with darker pigment but also by heightening the colors of the mountains just above and behind them. The contour of the highest peak is interrupted by bits of sky: strokes representing sky bleed into strokes representing mountain, and vice versa (fig. 4). Subtle variations of pale blue and wisps of red further complicate the passage. The foreground has its curiosities as well. The clothing of the figures runs through all the colors of the spectrum, from red to orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, as if every hue had to be represented. The contours of the figures and especially of the horse are typical of late Delacroix in their wobbly, undulant forms. The spatial arrangement of the figures is peculiar: the horse and woman milking it (with her impossible left arm) appear out of proportion to the rest of the figures: they are much larger than the figures on the left, who are only slightly farther away. My point is not to transform Delacroix into Cézanne (though, looking at the painting, one can easily understand why Cézanne worshipped Delacroix); rather, I wish to indicate that Delacroix’s meditations on civilization and barbarism were also meditations on nature and on the sensual qualities of painting.

Ovid Among the Scythians demonstrates how quickly, in Delacroix’s hands, thoughts about civilization led to thoughts about barbarism, how his admiration for the achievements of civilization could give way to admiration for a primitive life lived close to nature. Barbarism and the primitive were only two of a number of ideas and entities that Delacroix placed over and against civilization. There was also the natural, the bestial, and then painting itself. At the core of Delacroix’s aesthetics was the notion that art should move the viewer in some immediate, spontaneous, sensual, even visceral way, beside which all the refinement of civilization was almost as nothing. Civilization implied a degree of discipline and the constraint of natural impulses. Emulating its great artistic and intellectual achievements required learning and the slow acquisition of skill. Part of the story here is about Delacroix’s effort to reconcile the erudite, literary, tradition-bound aspects of his art with his desire to reach the viewer in a more direct, unrestrained manner. His art would never propound any easy equation between the binary pair civilization/barbarism and other key oppositions that informed his understanding of painting, such as those between the discursive and the figural, the intellectual and the sensual, the didactic and the decorative, the cogitated and the spontaneous, the mediated and the immediate, and the cultural and the natural. But his thoughts about civilization and barbarism led him increasingly to privilege the second term in all of these antinomies, and he often found that he could access these qualities best in the primitive, the animal, the natural, and other categories of experience more readily associated with barbarism. Delacroix valued these qualities because he felt they could provide a transcendent aesthetic experience that released the viewer momentarily from the mundane concerns of everyday life and the complications of modernity, which for him had elements of both civilization and barbarism.

(Excerpt ends here)

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