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Delacroix begat Renoir, who begat Matisse, who begat…

1 March 2016

‘He extended the limits of art’. That was how Eugène Delacroix described the English watercolourist Richard Parkes Bonington, a close friend who died at the age of only 26 in 1828, leaving a body of work that was ‘a type of diamond that flatters and ravishes the eye’. It is a generous formula for one artist to bestow on another, and one that chimes with how we continue, on the whole, to measure artistic achievement in terms of originality: to be considered great is to have broadened the scope of what is possible.

Delacroix himself redrew the map of painting and of what it was to conduct oneself as a painter, a development that is the subject of ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, currently at the National Gallery in London (until 22 May). This exhibition places the artist in the context of others who came after him – many of whom, such as Cézanne and Van Gogh, seem superficially to be very different artists, but for whom the example of Delacroix or his art was a powerful imaginative touchstone.

Pietà, after Delacroix (1889), Vincent van Gogh. © Van Gogh Museum (Vincent Van Gogh Foundation), Amsterdam

As such, this event reflects the current trend for large-scale loan exhibitions that explore influence, not only in terms of the impact an artist may have had on their immediate peers but also as a posthumous quality that is less easily defined. ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ follows ‘Rubens and His Legacy’, at the Royal Academy of Arts last spring, and coincides with ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ (5 March–3 July) at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And this autumn brings ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, also at the National Gallery. While the reach of these exhibitions is varied, together they suggest a widespread curatorial concern with rejuvenating the Old Masters – or at least of making arguments to new audiences for their enduring significance over centuries.

At the same time, I suspect that such shows have become fashionable, at least in part, because they offer curators and institutions more latitude than conventional monographic exhibitions when it comes to securing loans, and because they furnish museum marketing departments with a blockbuster name to blazon across promotional posters. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather as an acknowledgement that exhibition-making can be as much an exercise in pragmatism as it is a voyage towards wish fulfilment. An exhibition of Goya’s portraits is a risky undertaking, since every loan feels like a necessity; but there are many ways of watering down Rubens in the name of exploring his legacy.

Nevertheless, such exhibitions do accord with the thirst for historical continuity that is so marked in our institutions today, and particularly the prevalent notion that modern and contemporary art is always attuned to the traditions that precede it. There is a danger here, as any historical artist’s influence is seen to stretch into the contemporary, of simply ending up with yet another version of an oft-told story. Take the ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ exhibition, at least in its Berlin manifestation last autumn, which made a strong argument for how artists in the later years of the 19th century interpreted Botticelli through their art: William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley and others contributed to the same debates, in visual forms, that Walter Pater had prompted in his writing. But the conceit seems far more nebulous in the post-war period, when versions of the Venus become so widespread that they seem to comment less on Botticelli or his achievement than on the circulation of images more generally.

What these exhibitions do throw into relief is how challenging the subject of influence can be, insofar as it may refer to anything from direct training, to allusion and pastiche (and other forms of visual intertextuality), to innovations in technique and new artistic or commercial attitudes. And they’re also a reminder of just how ambivalent viewers can be about such matters. Many of us have stood in front of the work of a young artist, and praised it for catching something of Lucian Freud’s handling of paint, or for its knowing allusions to Matisse; and many of us have also dismissed a painter for following Freud or Matisse too closely. One thing at least is clear: only a few can extend the limits of art, while remaining part of its conversation.

From the March issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.