Delacroix on Color and Line

A 19th century cartoon depicting Ingres with a pen versus Delacroix with a brush

Writers on art once believed that Raphael and the School of Rome privileged line and contour whereas Titian and the Venetian School worshipped color, thereby making the overall palette and tonality of Venetian pictures in the Renaissance more significant than their forms. The same argument was then applied to Ingres, a master draughtsman in the nineteenth century, who was thought to place more value on a painting’s contours than its colors. Delacroix, his arch-rival and contemporary, was a Romantic whose expressive forms and glorious palette made him seem the opposite of Ingres, a lover of color not line. The cartoon above depicts this understanding. Ingres holds a pen as a symbol of line while Titian wields a brush as symbol of color. 

I have discussed elsewhere how artists use forms to convey their ideas. Indeed forms are ideas. All true artists know this. It therefore cannot be accurate to say that Titian or Delacroix considered color more important than line because without line there is no form and, thus, no meaning. It is difficult to convince someone brought up on such stories that they are false so I was pleased to come across this extract from Delacroix’s Journal in which he puts the whole issue to rest. Recognizing that his expressive brushwork can sometimes make the form less than clear, he wrote to himself:

“The first and most important thing in painting is the contour. Even if all the rest were to be neglected, provided the contours were there, the painting would be strong and finished. I have more need than most to be on my guard about this matter: think constantly about it, and always begin that way.

“It is to this that Raphael owes his finish and so, very often, does Géricault.”1

1. Wednesday, 7th April 1824 in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (London: Phaidon) 1980, pp. 28-9

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