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“The first merit of a picture is to be a feast for the eye,” reads the final entry in Eugène Delacroix’s journal.

From the writhing, rolling, snake-eating, body-slashing, fire-chewing crowds in the Romantic artist’s “Convulsionists of Tangier”, to Renoir’s glowing blue-gold portrait of a Sephardi store-owner in Paris “L’Algérienne”, to Matisse’s harmony of emerald shawl flung over cushions and rug “The Red Carpet”, that statement resonates across a century in the National Gallery’s rich, jumbled, stimulating new show, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art.

Delacroix was the first major French artist never to visit Italy. Instead he went to Morocco, and on that choice swung the evolution of French painting: away from neoclassical clarity of outline and carefully modelled form, towards colour, movement, sensation. Before Delacroix, nothing had been imagined on canvas approaching the confusion, emotional charge and shuddering vitality of “Lion Hunt”, where hunters are savaged by their prey, or the bravura textures and scintillating hues of the yellow-cloaked rider and red-saddled unruly steed in “A Moroccan Mounting His Horse”.

The hinge between Romanticism and Modernism, Delacroix is a unique force, and the National Gallery unravels how his frenzied manner, blended tones, density of design and restless spirit set 19th-century painting free. Work by work — but unfortunately in an inconsistent, sometimes bewildering thematic hang — we see how Delacroix variously liberated the Impressionist brushstroke, the Symbolist reverie, Gauguin’s decorative patterning and psychological charge — the undulating arabesques depicting Tahitian women in “Under the Pandanus” — and the chromatic audacity of the Fauves.

“We all paint in Delacroix’s language,” insisted Cézanne, whose “River Landscape”, a luminous composition of trees reflected in smooth waters, privately owned and annotated “copie de Delacroix” by his son, is the exhibition’s most compelling rarity. Renoir, grappling with multi-figure compositions in the 1870s, declared allegiance by making a full-scale copy, the lively “The Jewish Wedding (after Delacroix)”.

And even Signac’s lovely “Snow, Boulevard de Clichy”, the cool tonalities and urban mood far from the heat and fury of Romanticism’s exotic subjects, goes back formally, in the pointillist dots, to Delacroix’s interwoven flecks of colour.

Exhibitions of Delacroix outside France are difficult. Monumental salon masterpieces such as “Massacre of Chios” and “Death of Sardanapalus”, demonstrating the artist’s grandest manner, do not leave the Louvre; the last UK retrospective was in 1963, the centenary of Delacroix’s death. But “Sardanapalus” is here in the artist’s reduced-size replica, from Philadelphia, and it conveys how in the original the fleshy coral pinks of dying concubines in their crimson and gilt prison transform a narrative of destruction — the besieged king’s demand that all his household is killed — into an orgy of blazing colour: paint as its own subject.

Paris has lent only two small pieces, though glorious ones. “Combat of the Giaour and Hassan” is a ferocious mayhem of horses, draperies and limbs, based on fights between Arab horses rising on their hind legs “to tear each other apart”, which Delacroix witnessed in Morocco, but inspired too by Byron’s 1813 poem about the battle between a Turk and a Christian avenging the murder of a slave.

That is the quintessential Romantic narrative, while the Louvre’s 1837 “Self Portrait” is the archetypal Romantic likeness: powerful jaw, bright narrowed eyes, glossy black hair, intense concentration and fashionable elegance not quite masking disdain, all explain why Baudelaire named Delacroix “the tiger”.

Delacroix, Baudelaire continued, “was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible”. For, like many Romantic artists, Delacroix had, despite his disillusion with academicism and the sophistications of Europe, a longing for the classical. He believed that in Morocco he had found a version of “living antiquity”, simplified and dignified in its unbroken traditions.

“The Greeks and Romans are here at my door, in the Arabs who wrap themselves in a white blanket and look like Cato or Brutus,” he enthused soon after he arrived in 1832. “I’m like a man in a dream, seeing things he fears will vanish from him.” He spent the rest of his life digesting the experience, reworking the oriental motifs that had electrified Paris on his return.

Statuesque in her frontal pose and enigmatic gaze, the woman towering over drowsy men in “View of Tangier with Figures” (1853) here embodies the ideal of classical calm and beauty. “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” (1847-49), an exquisite reduced-scale variation of the Louvre’s lavishly ornamental picture, which was the sensation of the 1834 Salon, is a highlight of the show.

This version comes from Montpellier’s Musée Fabre; Van Gogh saw it in 1888 in Arles and was entranced by Delacroix’s use of the secondary colours purple, green and orange. Delacroix, he wrote, “speaks a symbolic language through colour itself”. Overwhelmed by a motif outside his Saint-Rémy asylum, he told Theo, “it’s too beautiful for me to dare to paint it . . . the olive trees . . . if you want to compare it to something, it’s like Delacroix”. The sinuous, turbulent “Olive Trees”, where olive greens, lilacs and orange-brown earth are swept up in a current of energy beneath a sulphur sun, is his expressionist response to Delacroix.

So mesmerising were Delacroix’s orientalist pictures to the French cultural imagination that at moments of creative crisis both Renoir, in 1881 at the break-up of the Impressionist movement, and Matisse in 1912 when Fauvism had run its course, followed the master by visiting north Africa. In Renoir’s “Arab Festival”, an S-curve of figures in Arab dress wind down a gorse-covered hillside to surround whirling dancers, each evoked by a quick touch of a loaded brush. Brilliant white accents flicker across the surface in this all-over, open-ended composition, which pushes on from Delacroix’s full, complete structures to risk formlessness, even abstraction.

Monet bought this painting when he began work on his “Water Lilies” in the 1890s; from their publication in 1893-95 until his death in 1926 he also obsessively reread Delacroix’s journals as he developed his own vision of interiority in painting. Here too Delacroix was the guide: “O young artist, you want a subject? Everything is a subject; the subject is yourself; they are your impressions, your emotions before nature. You must look within yourself and not around yourself.”

This show feels fresh and insightful: we are still talking Delacroix’s language.

‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, National Gallery, London, to May 22 nationalgallery.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: The Minneapolis Institute of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California; Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts; Musée Fabre, Montpellier; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; The Minneapolis Institute of Art; Private collection; Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Minnesota; Musée d’Art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg; Musée du Louvre, Paris

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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