Denon wing – 1st floor – Mollien – Room 77
Under a black sky streaked with bloody gleams, Phlegeton rolls its waters loaded with flames. In this scenery of terror, Virgil leads Dante towards Hell. Standing in the boat which bears them, the two poets have opposite attitudes; Virgil, wrapped in a large red cloak, does not seem moved; with his right hand, he retains the Florentine poet, whose gesture and face betray terror. Around the boat, led by an athletic ferryman, the damned men emerge from the black stream, convulsed, titanic, face ravaged, and try to cling to the skiff; one of them clings to the stern in a furious movement and bites it with rage. This swarming of torsos and livid flesh struggling in the spectral night give the impression of a scene of hell. There is so much dramatic power in this work, so much wild violence in the rendering and at the same time so skilful flexibility in the composition, that one feels to look at The Barque of Dante the same fear of which the author of The Divine Comedy shivers.
Speaking of this picture at the time when it was exhibited, Thiers praises it in enthusiastic terms. “No work,” he writes, “reveals the future of a great painter better than this picture. The author throws his figures, groups them, bends them at will with the boldness of Michelangelo and the fecundity of Rubens.”
Let us listen to Paul de Saint-Victor: “We can understand the effect which must have produced, in the midst of the insipid painting of the period, this dark and ardent canvas, illuminated by an infernal day. The Barque of Dante, with its titanic Phleggias and the damned who surround it, with the waves of black foam, with their tortuous folds of flesh and muscles, would be worthy to sail on the river which rolls at the bottom of the Last Judgment of Michelangelo.”
To think thus, with unanimous agreement, of the prodigious talent of Michelangelo, is it not to carry within itself something of its power and genius? And yet, at the time when this magnificent canvas appeared, Delacroix was only 24 years old; not only was he unknown, but he had no master, he only passed through the workshop of Guerin, whose icy technique revolted him. A painter, however, exercised a real influence over Delacroix: it was Gericault, his comrade in the studio, who had just painted the Raft of the Medusa. His example decided him to openly break with the Davidian tradition and the intense realism of this work forever distorted him from the academic way of the previous school.
His Barque of Dante is the first act of this fierce struggle that he will pursue all his life. At first he is an adversary of the school of David. Today we are surprised that this work of color so sober, so sculpturally plastic in the models of the human body, could be considered revolutionary and deserve so many violent insults; but if we go back to the time, we can understand the boldness of the novelty of Delacroix. He dared to bring passion and intense dramatic expression to a subject drawn from literature; he dared to choose a poet of the Middle Ages instead of drawing inspiration from classical antiquity.
This twenty-four-year-old artist overturns all the notions of the Beautiful, established by David and so badly interpreted by his pupils. Moreover, Delacroix does not pretend to contest David’s genius or to disregard the happy influence of his reaction against the decadence of art in the eighteenth century, but affirms his right to choose the subjects of his canvases at will and poses in principle, that antiquity is not the only inspiration of Beauty and that it is found everywhere in modern life, around itself, and that it is enough to attain to have a sincere soul and a net vision.
Curiously enough, Delacroix was not a child prodigy; he did not show, from his early years, those artistic dispositions which biographers like to observe in the life of great masters. When he left the Imperial High School at the age of seventeen, to enter Guerin’s studio, he seriously thought of embracing the military career, like his brothers. It was therefore by living in an artistic environment that his painter’s soul was revealed and that he decidedly took a taste for a career which he was to illustrate with such a splendor.
An immense passion, doubled by a formidable will, this was the man. And what power of imagination! “Ardent as the burning chapels, it shines with all the flames and all the purples, all the grief in passion excites him; all that is splendid in the Church illuminates him. He pours, in turn, on his inspired canvases, blood, light and darkness.” (Baudelaire.)
The Barque of Dante has lost much of its primitive brilliancy; the color has darkened to drown the characters in an almost absolute night. This unfortunate deterioration is attributable to the exaggerated use of the bitumen which Delacroix abandoned, fortunately, later on.
Whatever may have been said about the injustice suffered by Delacroix, he had, from the very beginning, received official encouragement; the painters alone were hostile to him. The State acquired The Barque of Dante for 1,200 francs and placed it in Luxembourg. It has since moved on to the Louvre where it appears, with her other works, in the room of the Modern French Painters.
Height: 1.80 – Width: 2.40 – Figure: 1 meter.