Delacroix’s Photograph: Some Possible Definitions of Greatness
Photograph of Eugène Delacroix by Félix Nadar, c.1857
by Jackson Arn
There was a point somewhere between birth and puberty when I would spend hours drawing pictures of bearded men. What interested me most was the beards themselves—the faces they hung from were as interchangeable as painted backgrounds in a play. To me, facial hair bespoke more personality than eyes or any of the other parts of the body I’d been instructed to think of as strongholds of the soul, so that whenever I’d sketch a man’s face I would imagine his selfhood emanating from his chin or between his nose and upper lip.
Children are fascinated by what they don’t yet have—hence their general interest in the world of adults, hence the interest of some of them, or at least one of them, in facial hair. To a child, all adult things symbolize adulthood equally. Even a mustache is full of intoxicating mystery; it forces children into the position of Shelley’s traveler from an antique land, pondering fragments of an unknowable empire. They’re not exactly wrong, either. Or are adults’ ideas about what is and isn’t important any more reliable than children’s? (Who decided that the eyes, not the hairs glistening above the upper lip, are the window to the soul?)
Recently I was looking at the famous photograph of Eugène Delacroix taken by Gaspard-Fèlix Tournachon, the man history remembers as Nadar. For some reason, I hadn’t remembered that this photograph, which I’d seen many times before, was a photograph; instead, I’d been imagining it as a handsome oil portrait by Vernet or Ingres or Delacroix himself. Even now, part of me thinks it is.
The great image-maker becomes image—a reversal as old as art, and yet, for Delacroix, posing before Nadar’s machine must have felt like venturing into the unknown. The daguerreotype had existed for less than two decades, and photographic portraits were still expensive novelties. Delacroix, the most famous artist in the art capital of the Western world, was as much a figure of tradition as he was a prophet—Delacroix who admired Rubens and Byron but paved the way for Manet and Matisse; Delacroix who created one of the great revolutionary works of its day, Liberty Leading the People, but never again painted contemporary figures. The ur-Modernist and last Old Master dying six years after he sat for Nadar, survived just long enough to be made into a photograph,
The image is not black and white but the color of Kansas and Old New York and any person who lived between the 1840s and the 1940s; the color of the ink sac of the cuttlefish whose Latin name, centuries after Latin became a dead language, was bestowed upon the first photographs; the color that once symbolized the cutting edge as surely as it now symbolizes the crumbling past.
The image has none of the crispness we’ve come to associate with light trapped on paper. In 1857, the year Delacroix sat for Nadar, the process of taking a picture could last as long as a few minutes, so that even if Delacroix had sat very still, as still as he could bear, he couldn’t have prevented his likeness from coming out misty and soft-edged. The folds of the arm of his waistcoat could almost have been painted by one of the Old Masters, many of whom spent years studying fabrics hardened in wax, until their brushstrokes were as smooth as what they mimicked.
By 1857, Delacroix was no stranger to modeling. The year he turned twenty, he allowed Géricault—seven years his senior and, before the older man died of tuberculosis, his only real rival—to paint him into The Raft of the Medusa. There he is in the foreground, pretty face pressed into the sinking planks, left hand dangling inches from the water.
Delacroix’s hands, the two instruments that made him great, the reason you’re reading this more than a century and a half after his death, are nowhere to be seen in Nadar’s photograph. One is buried in his right pocket; the other grabs his breast, under his waistcoat. This was hardly unusual in photography’s early days. Sitters were asked to keep their hands out of view for fear that they’d unconsciously move their fingers and leave the photograph blurry.
There were traditional reasons for concealing the hands as well as practical ones. The hand-in-waistcoat pose had been a fixture of English portraiture throughout the 18th century before Napoleon, the man who’d come close to destroying English culture for good, made it his trademark. Thus Napoleon, whose supporters thought they saw, in his ascendancy, the end of the landed aristocracy, styled himself after generations of obese, syphilitic dukes in wigs. By the time he adopted the pose himself, Delacroix must have seen tens of thousands of pictures of Napoleon with his hand in his waistcoat.
If Nadar’s photograph of Delacroix looks like a painting more than a photograph, it’s because of Delacroix himself. His eyelids are narrowed a little too intensely, his chin is ever so slightly acuter than a human being’s; the great Roman arch of his mouth is too broad to withstand gravity.
It’s possible, apparently, to be a real person and contort your face in these ways. But it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century person doing so in earnest. It’s harder to imagine a 19th-century painter maintaining such a frown until the photographer told him he could stop. People in old photographs rarely smile, it’s said, because nobody can stay smiling for so long—on the other hand, smiling is supposed to require fewer muscles than frowning.
Nadar’s photograph resembles nothing so much as the self-portrait Delacroix painted twenty years previously. Had Delacroix never been photographed, art historians might have accused him of prettifying his appearance—instead, his dark, flowing hair is the same in both images, as are his waistcoat, his mustache, and his strong, clever jawline. In his self-portrait, however, he stares straight back at you; for Nadar, he stared off into the distance as if contemplating a glorious future (his? France’s? art’s?) The younger Delacroix knows you, respects you, wants your help. The older Delacroix needs nobody’s help—he already knows what his legacy will be.
The more I studied the photograph, the clearer it became to me that Nadar had recorded a tremendous physical feat disguised as a perfect stillness. This was more than a photograph of Delacroix in a chair; this was a photograph of Delacroix straining, with every muscle in his body, to become the version of his self he’d been painting for the last forty years—to become, in short, a work of art. That Delacroix was short and sickly is rarely mentioned in accounts of his life; instead, the protagonist of most Delacroix biographies exudes passion, cannot help being larger than life. A century and a half after his death, his life, his self-portrait, and his photograph are one.
Delacroix was a master imitator. He possessed that combination of arrogance and selflessness that is needed in order to mimic the greatest. At thirty-three, inspired by Lord Byron’s voyage to Greece, he volunteered to sail to Morocco. There are sections of his notebooks where Byron’s name shows up on every page. Strangely, nowhere in Delacroix’s extensive writings, either his notebooks or his letters, is Byron’s death mentioned—perhaps because a letter has been lost to history, or because, as far as Delacroix was concerned, Byron hadn’t died at all.
He lived through a golden age of imitation, the age when Europeans, at peace with one another for the first time in generations and packed into increasingly large and crowded cities, succumbed to fashions that spread and multiplied like germs. This was also a golden age of individuality, of Romantic heroes who abandoned the herd and turned to the edges of civilization in search of new values.
This apparent contradiction was of great interest to the literary theorist René Girard, who made it a central theme of his magnum opus, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Desire, for Girard, was always imitative, or “mimetic.” For thousands of years, human beings had understood this—they had no delusions of uniqueness. Then, with the dawn of the modern bourgeois society, they began to deny the second-handed-ness of their desires. For Girard, the greatness of such novels as Dostoevsky’s Demons and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black lay in the perceptiveness with which they diagnosed this peculiar ailment of bourgeois society: our stubborn, sometimes violent refusal to admit that we are all copying each other.
In the 19th century European denial of imitative desire, Girard saw a kind of masochism, a cognitive dissonance (the term was coined shortly before he published Deceit, Desire, and the Novel) that left deep scratches on the psyche and the body. There were times when Delacroix seemed to make a fetish of his own originality and other times when he seemed to understand the lack of originality underlying his life’s work. When he allowed Nadar to preserve his image forever, what was he thinking? As he stared through the camera, tensing his facial muscles, how much pain did he feel?
Like many if not most ambitious young men of his generation, Delacroix admired the Corsican. Both of his older brothers fought on Napoleon’s side: one died at the Battle of Friedland while the other rose to the rank of general. By the time Delacroix was old enough for battle, Napoleon was a prisoner; nevertheless—and with typical Girardian irony—the painter seems to have found in his hero’s rise from commoner to emperor a suitable model for his own uniqueness.
For the bulk of history, Susan Sontag wrote, human beings had no way of knowing what their parents had looked like when they were young. Delacroix entered middle-age just as this was beginning to change permanently. He had no way of knowing what his father’s face had once looked like, had barely known his father at all. Charles-Francoise Delacroix, a statesman and one-time Minister of Foreign Affairs, died in 1805 after decades of poor health—in 1797, surgeons sliced a tumor the size of a dog, containing “the most delicate masculine organs,” out of his body.
Delacroix was born more than a year after the surgery. Even before he’d risen to fame, there was widespread interest in his paternity. Rumors that Charles-Francoise was impotent and thus could not have been the father eventually got back to Delacroix—at several points in his notebooks he seems to suggest that his real father was Talleyrand, Napoleon’s favorite diplomat and a friend of his mother’s. There’s no doubt that Talleyrand took an interest in Delacroix that reached far beyond what most fathers can or would do for their offspring: introducing him to influential patrons, helping him sail to Morocco, pulling strings to ensure that his paintings would fetch only the highest prices. But Delacroix claimed other, spiritual fathers as his own: Bonaparte, Byron, Shakespeare, Scott, the cream of the anthropoid crop.
Delacroix isn’t often compared to Yukio Mishima, but while sitting for Nadar he exhibited the same willingness to treat his body as an object of worship, a hunk of clay to be pinched and kneaded into perfection, that the Japanese novelist would take to new extremes a century later.
For the last fifteen years of his life, Mishima, who’d been skinny and weak as a child, lifted weights three times a week. He reinvented himself as a sex symbol. He traveled the world, modeled, posed for thousands of pictures, starred in movies, relished being looked at. In a photograph from November 25, 1970, he’s wearing a tight uniform that emphasizes his broad shoulders and firm biceps. Mishima’s expression is, very nearly, Delacroix’s, the same thousand-yard stare and exaggerated frown, the look of a prophet who has deigned to be glimpsed by mortals. A few moments after the photograph was taken he ripped open his body with a sword. He’d been planning a showstopper death for more than a year.
Being photographed, far from being incidental to Mishima’s mission, was the mission’s essence. His desire, at once self-obsessed and self-negating, to be converted into pure image is possible when the desirer has total control over his image. Before the invention of the photograph, the only people of whom this could truly be said were artists. Photography invented another way of taking control over one’s image, tyrannizing the body. This required a new kind of narcissism and a new kind of courage to go with it: the willingness to endure great pain in exchange for rewards the tyrant would never enjoy, the willingness, in other words, to be subject and object, tyrant and slave.
In 1857, at the dawn of the age of the photograph, the age of self-devouring narcissism, Delacroix sits and stares, straining to be seen the way he sees himself.
It would take several decades for photography to discover what it was best at: capturing the decisive moment without denying that moment’s transience. Early photography, taking its cues from painting, made virtues of symmetry, stillness, and chilly Neoclassical perfection. Some of the earliest notable photographers even tried to recreate Old Masters’ paintings for the camera. Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, born the year before Nadar’s portrait of Delacroix, smeared his models in milk and olive oil until they were as blemish-free as Raphael’s Madonnas.
It is strange to think that photography ever aspired to the condition of painting. But it is no coincidence that photography first flourished in France, where almost every great European painter of the era went to study and where the same collectors who’d made a success of Delacroix would later patronize Nadar and Atget. Perhaps, like a good child, photography had to honor its parent-medium, painting, until it was worldly enough to get by on its own. Until that time, it played by the rules of painting, strived for the same aesthetic goals, even when the models had to contort their faces or drown in oil.
Photography’s relationship to painting was once so humble that Delacroix could speak of the photograph as an adorable young child (Delacroix himself had no legitimate children, though he was rumored to have had an affair with George Sand). It was his hope that painters would use photography as a way of sharpening their eyes and achieving near-perfect realism in their work. It never seemed to occur to him—or, to be fair, virtually anyone else in the first half of the 19th century—that photography would make realism in painting quaint, if not altogether obsolete.
Delacroix’s stare, like Mishima’s, is founded on a contradiction so vast that only the intensity of the starer can keep the image’s meaning in one piece.
The rictus of concentration, the stare not at but beyond the camera—with these things, Delacroix seems to say, “Leave me alone, I have no time for being looked at. Genius never rests.” The intensity of his stare does not vanish when Nadar breaks down his camera but continues forever—that, at least, is the photograph’s boast, the boast of any picture of a great man with a furrowed brow.
It does vanish, of course. A stare as intense as Delacroix’s cannot last more than minute, and then only with tremendous effort. While it does last, however, this stare pretends to deny the viewer on which it depends entirely. Like Whistler’s mother, refusing to meet her offspring’s gaze, Delacroix looks away from an audience with which he is intimately connected and greatly invested. He protests too much. Whatever his expression suggests, he has endless time to be looked at. He craves the audience he’s ignoring.
What is it about an indifferent stare that makes us stare closer? Is it that we want the subject to return our attention, or some fraction of our attention? Are we hoping to catch, in the flawed mirror of another face, a glimpse of whatever the subject is looking at? If we knew how desperately famous people craved our attention, would we continue giving it to them?
Possible definitions of greatness
A role, like Batman or Lyndon B. Johnson, that is offered as a reward for the actor’s long, fruitful career but in actuality signals that career’s decline.
Something painful and ill-fitting, like the tight, leather uniform Mishima wore the day he committed seppuku or the expression Delacroix wore the day he sat for Nadar.
A soft, tumorous growth spilling out of adulthood’s side.
A process so long and painful it wipes out all memory of its intermediary steps and leaves behind a pale, worn product to be gawked at.
Like giants or dragons, a riff on childhood nightmares remembered long after childhood’s end; a manifestation of our collective yearning to be three feet tall again.
Offering something you don’t have to people who don’t know what it is, until eventually they begin to think they’ve remembered.
A 19th-century photograph.
After pondering the photograph for a while this is what I realized: Delacroix’s was exactly the face my childhood self had been trying to draw all along, without knowing. The debonair goatee, the faint sneer, the hawk eyes and eyebrows faintly arched—this was not adulthood, exactly, but a version of adulthood performed to near-perfection, an ideal I carried with me wherever I went, even as a child.
“I forbid it expressly”
Delacroix died six years after Nadar photographed him. A clause in his will prohibited all representations of his lifeless face, whether by camera, cast, pencil, or brush. Paris was permitted to see him as he saw himself, nothing less.
Try, if you can, to imitate Delacroix’s expression in Nadar’s photograph. Stare off into the distance. Frown. Try to imitate him for one minute without shaking. Try for thirty seconds. Try for ten.
About the Author:
Jackson Arn is a critic, poet, and occasional filmmaker living in Brooklyn, New York. Arn’s writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, CNN.com, The Point, The Quietus, Public Books, Asymptote, Afterimage, Fandor Keyframe, Film Comment, Artsy, Reverse Shot, Senses of Cinema, The Forward, Partisan Hotel, and other places.