Historians have insisted for decades that modern art commenced in France with the Salon des Refusés of 1863, the special exhibition of works by Edouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler and others who had been refused admission that year to the state-sponsored annual exhibition in Paris of living French artists. Yet the principal characteristics invariably associated with Modernism – the artist’s self-conscious rejection of conventional or academic methods of representation in search of more vital forms of personal expression, and the exploration of the aesthetic autonomy of the means of representation, regardless of the subject represented – were in evidence long before the Salon des Refusés.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists grappled with novel responses to ever-changing social, economic and intellectual conditions in their milieu. This is especially true in the theory and practice of British, and concurrently, French Romanticism. Artists and cultural pundits active in 1863 certainly endorsed that perspective in attributing the birth of modern art to a medley of earlier masters, from Théodore Géricault and J.M.W. Turner to Richard Parkes Bonington and, preponderantly, Eugène Delacroix, who died that very year.
Without attaching the tag of ‘first modern’ to any particular artist’s or school’s legacy, this exhibition examines the radical role as mentor and archetype that Eugène Delacroix and his art played during his lifetime and subsequent decades. As the bridge between Anglo-French Romanticism of the 1820s and the ‘New Painting’ that came to be called Impressionism in 1874, Delacroix’s influence reveals a progression by which, one after another, succeeding generations of avant-garde artists, however divergent their own artistic programs, engaged anew every aspect of his protean achievement.
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