Eugène Delacroix, leader of the nineteenth century Romantic movement, creator of France’s most iconic painting, Liberty Leading the People, is widely regarded as the most influential painter of his time. His unparalleled mastery of color inspired generations of artists; creating a bridge from the antiquated, high-brow art of the Salon, to the progenitors of Modern art from Symbolists and Pointillists, to those whom would revolutionize how we look at art today, the Impressionists.
Well-born near Paris in 1798, though orphaned by the age of 16, Delacroix attended the best Parisian art schools of the day. He excelled and after graduating, his bold use of color, the impassioned expressions of his figures, and naturalist subject matter were antithetical to the prevailing idealism of the Neoclassicism exemplified in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii.
Delacroix believed depicting the perfection of humanity – which can only exist in a painting – paled in comparison to capturing the reality of humanity, even if exacerbated by his eye’s lens to more fully elicit and incite the wildest emotions from his viewer. He was nevertheless very much a product of his early European, nineteenth century milieu where History paintings, whether political, religious, mythological or allegorical, were perched atop the hierarchy of genres. The hierarchy favored art that made an effort to render visible the universal essence of things over art that merely mechanically copied physical appearances. That is a lot to unpack, but is at the very heart of understanding and appreciating fine art.
Let’s consider this example created by Delacroix around 1853. Incidentally, he painted at least six versions of this scene and the one depicted here is in the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, USA.
I’ve yet to reveal the title of this painting because in my opinion, it’s not important. I believe we could show this painting to an as-yet uncontacted South American tribe of primitive headhunters and they could tell us what is depicted, which is to say, what the painting means.
In turbulent waters, the men fear for their lives. Except one. He must know something the others do not. He knows they will be okay.
But we’re not primitive headhunters. We’re versed in history and literature. Depending on the breadth of that knowledge, you should be able to discern whom the sleeping figure is. Not sure yet? Here’s another version, currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Delacroix’s composition here is superior in many ways as the mountain in the background draws your eye up to the pinnacle of the canvas. We are almost swept up by the chaos, writhing in the clutches of the storm itself. But it is Delacroix’s colorization that makes this painting a masterpiece. The jade sea with foamy, white caps is brilliantly defined beneath the foreboding, charcoal clouds. The reds and magentas worn by the terrified men are contrasted with the cool, blue robes and yellow light that emanates from our sleeper’s head like a halo. And by now you must surely recognize the scene Delacroix has depicted. The figure is Christ, the scene from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke where Christ calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Delacroix chose to depict Christ asleep, shifting the message from an affirmation of faith to an acknowledgement of doubt. Prevalent in each depiction is the man lying asleep or dead, directly beneath the Christ figure. Less-rendered than the other figures, each of these men’s countenances is similar to the Christs’. Why is the man unconscious (or already dead), unafraid of the impending doom? Perhaps because he represents Christ’s physical self, a husk of mortality, being shed and left behind as His spiritual self arises to guide the men to safety.
Years later Vincent van Gogh, so struck by the painting, wrote the “little lemon yellow for the halo, the aureole—speaks a symbolic language through color itself.”
The image stayed and resonated with Vincent after leaving Paris and heading for the South of France in February of 1888. Over that year in Arles, he blossomed into the great artist universally admired today. It was his exploration of Delacroix’s colorization that produced his revered Sunflowers, Sower with Setting Sun, Café Terrace at Night and many others. In fact, one of his lesser known works was directly inspired by this Delacroix. Let’s take a closer look at van Gogh’s Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges.
Vincent began by making a detailed sketch of men unloading barges from the Rhône to a quay in Arles, a stone’s throw from his home, remembered today as The Yellow House. That summer, Vincent had begun dabbling in Symbolist art. This is a sticky subject among art historians. Get six of them together in a room? They’ll come up with seven definitions. What’s important to me is how Vincent viewed, worked and tried to inspire his fellow comrades Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin within the genre. We’ve already mentioned a key element, “the lemon halo… speaks a symbolic language through color itself.” Color became deeply symbolic to van Gogh, yellow representing the light of God and His love. Note how Vincent uses Delacroix’s jade green to colorize the Rhône. Another Symbolist component is line. Note how Vincent’s barges mirror those in the Delacroix depictions. By replicating their shape, he makes an allusion to their importance. The final Symbolist component to consider here is the addition or subtraction of physical reality. In the sketch, Vincent depicted Arles’ skyline in the background, as it exists in reality. In the final painting, he as transformed it to look more like a mountain; much like Delacroix’s mountain in Christ Asleep during the Tempest. Vincent added another nod to Delacroix by transforming the flag in the sketch to the French tricolor (at half-mast, no less) in the painting. Any delusions this is not a Symbolist venture are allayed by this excerpt Vincent wrote to Bernard about the painting which he painted specially for him.
“You see that all of this is perhaps not at all — Impressionist – well, too bad, I can’t do anything about it — but I do what I do with an abandonment to reality, without thinking about this or that. Goes without saying that if you preferred another study from the batch to the Men unloading sand, you could take it and remove my dedication if someone else wants it. But I believe that that one will suit you once you’ve looked at it a little longer.”
So, the question is what does this painting mean? Upon “looking a little longer,” what did Vincent expect his friend to see? The substantial visual references to the Delacroix aside, let’s consider what the men in the painting are doing: unloading sand. Work, labor, toil held strong spiritual resonance for van Gogh his entire artistic career, exemplified in his Potato Eaters of 1885. The sand could have symbolic meaning, referring to the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders wherein the wise erect their homes upon rock; the foolish, upon sand. The sand may refer to Genesis 3:19, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Or the sand itself may not be as important as the fact the men are working, bringing it from somewhere else to this place called Arles. Who are the three men working in the painting? Perhaps they’re representative of Vincent, Bernard and Gauguin, whose toil in their newfound Symbolist venture together, what Vincent termed a Renaissance, would be grounded not only in the colorization of Delacroix but in his (and their own) affirmations of faith in Christ.
Vincent hoped Bernard would recognize his gift firstly as a Symbolist homage to Delacroix. Bernard had recently been studying the Bible, and Vincent, a former lay-preacher who knew the book back-to-front, encouraged him to do so. At this time, they were attempting to forge a new movement in art, something that would rise out of Impressionism. And while they dabbled in several forms including Pointillism and Cloisonnism, their exploration of Symbolism allowed them to reach for that pinnacle of artistic genres where they may render visible the universal essence of things.
Vincent ultimately hoped Bernard and Gauguin, whom he was attempting to woo, to lure to Arles where they would institute a brotherhood of “artist-apostles,” igniting a new Renaissance in art, would recognize Quay with Men Unloading Sand Barges depicts this venture. Through their hard work and labors, the three would allegorically resurrect the message of Christ, firmly placing it back within the fin-de-siècle zeitgeist.