The Metropolitan Museum of Art is premiering a retrospective of paintings and drawings by 19th-century artist Eugene Delacroix – a first in North America following a similar show at the Louvre in March. Why are two museums known for their giant collections of art giants concentrating on only one? Exhibit literature suggests an answer: “He reconnected the present to the past.”

Identity crisis

New York Times art critic Robert Smith's review of the show offered a similar opinion, calling the artist a “prophet of the modern age.” She quoted Cezanne for reinforcement: “You can find us all in Delacroix” (likely alluding to the variety of art movements found in his work, from Impressionism and Expressionism to Symbolism).

By way of example, Smith points to the explosion of gold in Van Gogh's “Sunflowers” that can be seen in Delacroix's “Apollo Slays the Python.” But here's the thing. Delacroix would have hated all the talk of modernism in his name. He saw himself as a classicist. (Just think of classical antiquity – formal and restrained – and you have his self-image). But aside from his reference to antiquity in his paintings like “Apollo Slays the Python,” one look at his decidedly unrestrained color and loose brushwork, I'd argue that if anything, this artist was a Romanticist bent on expressing high emotion.

Tete-a-tete

A conversation about Delacroix between Renoir and his French art dealer Ambrose Vollard sheds additional light on him (though far from admiring), which Vollard noted in his 1925 biography “Renoir: An Intimate Record.“ Apparently, Renoir didn't take the work of the so-called “prophet of the modern age” as seriously as the Met and the Louvre.

The celebrated Impressionist whose subjects were often women, said, “I don't mean to compare myself with Delacroix, but do you remember that phrase of his, 'Give me some mud, and I will paint you a woman's flesh?” Vollard defended Delacroix by saying the quote needed to be better understood and referred to what some critics had said. But Renoir balked: “Please don't ascribe things to Delacroix that he never even thought of!” Then the Impressionist recounted the time when the artist was painting the ceiling of the Chamber of Deputies and an employee of the library tried to compliment him by saying, '”Master, you are the Victor Hugo of painting.” And he replied, “'You don't know what you're talking about, my dear friend! I am a classicist, pure and simple.”

Who should get the last word?

At this point Vollard agreed with Renoir, saying this about Delacroix: “Did you know that his distrust of innovators in art also extends to music? He doesn't like Berlioz – revolutionary music he calls it – and I feel very sorry for him.” Of course, there's a clear streak of jealousy running though Renoir and his art dealer is not about to disagree with one of his best-selling clients.

Even so, it seems valuable sometimes to step away from the words of art museums and critics and clue into what artists have to say about themselves and about each other.