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Le Musée National Eugène Delacroix on rue de Furstenberg in the sixth arrondissement is quite small. Like many modest museums, and Paris has them by the dozens, it contains a few works of interest, but it also worth a visit because it reveals a great deal about Delacroix as an artist and as a man. Most of his great works, like La Liberté guidant la peuple, you will have to find and look at somewhere else—with one exception. La mort de Sardanapale or the Death of Ashurbanipal has traveled from the Louvre to the Musée Delacroix. It is an enormous painting (about 12 by 16 feet), filled with romantic gorgeous detail, perfectly faithful to the poem by Lord Byron that inspired the work. Everything else is much smaller.
What you will first see when you visit is his home, a very comfortable nineteenth-century bourgeois residence with a rather steep staircase at the entrance that will, unfortunately, keep the handicapped and those who do not like to climb stairs out. This is a shame, but there seems to be no way to add an elevator without doing violence to the building which, of course, is protected as a national landmark. The comfort of the place gives a very good idea of how, and how well, a successful artist lived a century and a half ago in Paris.
The museum, for example, has some of his equipment, including a jar he used to clean his brushes, his souvenirs from his trip to Morocco, and odds and ends that Delacroix picked up here and there, some of them obviously touristique, but all of them of good quality, like his furniture. There are also pictures he admired and bought including one by the younger Fragonard (not the one who painted lords and ladies as shepherds and shepherdesses) mainly, I think, because the sun coming in through the skylight mimics Delacroix’s own skylight in the studio where the best works are hanging.
The small paintings on display vary in interest, though not in quality. There is a picture he painted of a young boy who won the Latin prize in his school—and got Delacroix paint to him, not so bad. There is The Education of the Virgin, a bit too sentimental for my own taste, but a good example of late Romantic painting at its most disciplined. And, near it, you will see the well-known Nègre vu en buste, a portrait of a black North African soldier in a turban, a piece of exoticism at the time. Perhaps one of the most interesting is his self-portrait, painted when he was about twenty. The picture is of a handsome man (Delacroix always was, and the busts and drawings of him throughout the museum attest to his good looks) who seems to emerge from a very confusing dark background, almost like a storm cloud.
The most powerful and important piece is or Mary Magdalene in the Desert. It is a beautiful and highly sexual rendering of the Magdalene in a style that we don’t usually associate with the middle of the nineteenth century. Her face is softly focused, her smile puzzling but welcoming, her skin pale and nearly translucent. It has none of the sentiment or pathos of Romantic painting and, if I can speak for others, seizes the viewer. Baudelaire, a friend of Delacroix, thought it one of the most amazing paintings he had ever seen.
In a few words, a review of a museum can only suggest what is available to see and to enjoy. But I hope these few words encourage you to go and see for yourself. The museum is compact, rarely if ever crowded, and contains many pictures, and few objects, that will stay in your memory, I hope, as they stay in mine.
6, rue de Furstenberg, Paris 6th
Tél: 01 4441 8650
Métro: #4 Saint-Germain-des-Prés, #10 Mabillon
Full day access ticket to the Louvre also valid to the Musée Eugène Delacroix
Accessibility: stairs only; not recommended for those with mobility concerns.