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Barque of Dante

Collection: 
Louvre, Paris

Art critic Adolphe Thiers was positively impressed when he saw Barque of Dante at the 1822 Salon :

“The artist possesses, besides that poetic imagination which painter and writer share, that other kind of imagination which might be called the pictorial and which is of a quite different nature. He dashes off his figures, groups them, and twists them about with a boldness that recalls Michelangelo and a fertility of invention that reminds us of Rubens. At the sight of this painting, I am seized by the memory of I know not what great artist. I find in it a wild power, an ardent, spontaneous intensity which is carried along by its own momentum.”

Cited in Lorenz Eitner, Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850, vol. 2: Neoclassicism and Romanticism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), p. 149.

 

When Delacroix’s Barque of Dante was exhibited at the Exposition universelle of 1855, the art critic Théophile Gautier commented:

“Dante and Virgil, standing in the boat, are seen against a background darkened by the rust-colored smoke of the eternal fires. Dante leans toward his guide Virgil with that feeling of terror that recurs with virtually every stanza of the Divine Comedy; the Mantuan poet, Virgil, accustomed for a dozen centuries to the horrors of this shadowy empire, is far more calm. He is disturbed neither by the gnashing mouths nor by the convulsive hands that bite and scratch the sides of the boat. Meanwhile, the Florentine is terrified as he watches the bodies twisted by fruitless effort, and their torsos, pallid like dead flesh. In the dirty foam, the livid light of infernal day seems to extinguish itself on them. One of these damned souls, arched on a wave like a torture victim tied to the wheel, is surely one of the most beautiful passages of painting M. Delacroix has ever done.”

Théophile Gautier, Les Beaux-Arts en Europe (Paris : Michel Lévy, 1855),  p. 173 ;  cited in James H. Rubin, “Delacroix’s Dante and Virgil as a Romantic Manifesto: Politics and Theory in the Early 1820s,” Art Journal, vol. 52, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 48.

 

James Rubin clarifies the impact of Delacroix’s choice of technique in Barque of Dante:

“Already in the Dante and Virgil, and then increasingly in later works, Delacroix’s painterliness on the one hand expresses the drama and intensity of a creative process appropriate to a powerful subject; presumably it produces a sympathetic emotional response in the viewer. On the other hand, it is a sham: it distances us from the subject’s reality by reminding us that we face a fiction of art, whose style produces the pleasure we take in what would otherwise be a gruesome display.”

James H. Rubin, “Delacroix’s Dante and Virgil as a Romantic Manifesto: Politics and Theory in the Early 1820s,” Art Journal, vol. 52, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 57.

 

Petra Chu finds subtle signs of the technical inventiveness for which Delacroix is known in Barque of Dante:

 

“Although the execution of The Barque of Dante shows a dramatic departure from the smooth polished brushwork of [Pierre-Narcisse] Guérin and the Davidian school, it is not particularly innovative from a colorist point of view. Only the famous drops of water on the bodies of the drowning nudes hint at Delacroix’s later, more daring use of color. Instead of being painted in the traditional manner, with touches of white and gray, they are rendered by means of small dabs of color: white, red, green, and yellow. According to Delacroix’s student Pierre Andrieu, this use of color was determined by Delacroix’s study of the color gradations of the rainbow, ‘that palette of creation.’”

Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, “’A Science and an Art at Once’. Delacroix’s Pictorial Theory and Practice,” in Beth S. Wright, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 100.

 

Lee Johnson notes Delacroix’s earlier interest in Dante and Michelangelo:

“In 1819, Delacroix was already translating passages from the Inferno and drawing sketches inspired by it: the Louvre sketch-book RF23356 contains studies illustrating the episode in canto I where Dante is frightened by a lion and wolf standing side by side in his path…and, accompanied by the artists own translation of the text, the scene from canto iii where Charon loads his boat with the damned. The latter choice is closer to Michelangelo, in both theme (bottom right of Last Judgement) and style (e.g. a figure inspired by the Dying Slave) as well as to the Salon painting of 1822….”

Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue. 1816-1831, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 77.

 

Related works:

Studies for Barque of Dante are in a sketchbook in the Drawings Department of the Louvre

Delacroix, Christ on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1841 (versions in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, the Portland Museum of Art, Oregon, and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore)

 

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Edouard Manet (1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1850s, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon)

Camille Corot, Dante and Virgil, 1859 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Paul Cézanne (1870s, private collection)

Hans Makart, Dante and Virgil in Hell, c. 1863-65. Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Copies by Other Artists

Anselm Feuerbach, The Barque of Dante, 1851-52. Geneva, Bona Terra Foundation

About the Artist

Born: Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 26 April 1798
Died: Paris, 13 August 1863
Nationality: French