by Margaret MacNamidhe. I. B. Tauris, August 2015. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9781780769370 (h/c), $49.00.
Reviewed July 2017
In Delacroix and His Forgotten World, Margaret MacNamidhe seeks to recast Eugène Delacroix, who in the author’s view has been simultaneously revered and unfairly essentialized by art historians, as a seminal figure of the Romantic period and to reposition his work as singular within the canon of French painting. Over the course of five beautifully illustrated chapters and two appendices MacNamidhe dissects contradictory critical reactions to the work of Delacroix, from the 1824 Salon to such authoritative twentieth-century critics as Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg, in tandem with detailed examinations of Delacroix paintings.
The author posits that the general inability of critics to settle upon a series of works to represent Delacroix has led to a biased response to his work – while Delacroix has been generally lionized by critics, the same critics often fail to illustrate these favorable assessments of the artist’s oeuvre with specific examples. Paradoxically, the author notes that critics more often than not limit their consideration of Delacroix to the period between the 1820s and the 1830s, when in fact his career spanned several decades. In order to fill this void, MacNamidhe instead looks closely at specific works by Delacroix, taking as a case study the significant yet lesser-known painting, Scenes from the Massacre at Chios: Greek Families Awaiting Death or Slavery (1824), a work she argues has been both overlooked and misunderstood in relation to other notable examples of major painting. The author examines this work through a variety of lenses: she positions details of the work in relation to other works by Delacroix and his contemporaries, and she devotes an entire chapter to Henri Beyle Stendhal, suggesting Stendhal’s criticism of Chios as a departure point for analyzing that which is unique in the work of Delacroix. MacNamidhe concludes by asserting that it is her recognition of the longevity of Delacroix’s career, combined with her consideration of early critical responses in shaping the artist’s subsequent body of work, which addresses the limited and potentially wrong-headed critical approach to Delacroix thus far.
MacNamidhe’s complex, multivalence reconsideration of the work and reception of Delacroix is occasionally challenging to parse, but ultimately deep and rewarding. The author, a Delacroix scholar who is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Chicago, offers the reader a thorough examination of the history of critical approaches to Delacroix as well as her own well-considered approach to the artist’s body of work – reading Delacroix and His Forgotten World is akin to taking an entire survey course on the artist.
This book will be most useful for advanced scholars and is an appropriate addition to academic libraries serving historians of European painting.