5.3 The popular Gothic
Most of the subjects Delacroix painted in the 1820s broke free from the constraints of the morally uplifting themes of the classical tradition, which had focused on the heroic and sacred achievements of ancient Greece and Rome or the saints and martyrs of Christianity. In the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, the Gothic, medieval and anecdotal took the place of the grand, universal ideas that underpinned much classical art. There was a thriving private market for such subjects, which challenged the dominance in the Academy of classical history and culture. Legends, myths and tales were valued by the Romantics for their embodiment of valuable, imaginative truths. Delacroix was always proud of the daring approach he adopted in Sardanapalus – if saddened, ultimately, by the charge of defection from classicism uttered by those viewing it. He had written Gothic novels in his youth. His Gothic paintings, with their dark, looming architecture and horrifying events (as in The Murder of the Bishop of Liège), contrast with the order and decorum of David’s Neoclassicism; they liberated the artist’s imagination from an exhausted classical repertoire.
Indeed, a taste for the Gothic permeated French popular taste of the 1820s. Novellas and stage melodramas based on Gothic horror were in vogue. They frequently included stock figures of evil priests, monks and aristocrats: the Gothic was exploited as a means of social critique. In 1824 Delacroix made some caricature studies of priests and monks based on Goya’s Caprichos series (see Plate 26, Goya’s Theyre Hot, and Plates 26 and 28, sketches by Delacroix in similar vein). The plot of one of Delacroix’s own Gothic novellas, Alfred, concerns a corrupt priest who persuades an evil nobleman to force his son to take monastic vows so that the son’s inheritance may be easier to steal. Such plots were based on the darker side of Enlightenment literature, such as Diderot’s The Nun (written in 1760), a tale of Gothic suffering and forced convent vows. Gothic literature and art revelled in the extreme and the spectacular, in evil, ugliness and all manner of Faustian pacts with the devil. Sardanapalus, with its satanic destruction and horror, might be viewed as the archetypal Gothic melodrama.
Click to see Plate 26: Francisco de Goya, They’re Hot
Click to see Plate 27: Eugène Delacroix, Priests and Monks
Click to see Plate 28: Eugène Delacroix, sketch after Goya’s Caprichos