Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix was born on 26 April 1798 in Charenton-Saint-Maurice in Île-de-France, near Paris. His father was Charles-François Delacroix, a French statesman who became Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Directory, and his mother, Victoire, the daughter of a cabinet-maker. However, there are claims that his father was infertile because of an enormous growth he had on one of his testicles and persistent rumors at the time claimed Delacroix’s real father was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was a French bishop, politician, and diplomat and whose career spanned the regimes of Louis XVI, the years of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe.
Supporting the rumors that Talleyrand was Delacroix’s real father is the fact that Talleyrand was a well-known womanizer. It was also reported that “Delacroix looked like Talleyrand, exhibited many of his behavioral traits, and was anonymously supported by the foreign minister during his early years.” However, today most contemporary historians who have examined this father-son connection do not believe Delacroix was Talleyrand’s son.
Although Delacroix’s paternity may be interesting, what is perhaps more intriguing is four numerous near-death experiences he experienced by the age of three. The first of these occurred when his nurse fell with him in her arms into the sea. She was saved by some courageous sailors, who were said to be the cause of the calamity in the first place, as she was more attentive to them than herself or Delacroix. The next unfortunate incident resulted in him suffering serious injuries after almost being burnt to death in his cradle that caught fire. The third event occurred when someone accidentally left verdigris out and he decided to try it. If these three incidents were not frightening enough, Delacroix supposedly added to them one day when he decided to hang himself, so he could feel the sensation. Luckily, someone found him and saved him in the nick of time.
Delacroix’s early education occurred at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, where he concentrated on the classics and received awards and accolades for his drawings. At 18, Delacroix began to study under the “classic” painter Pierre-Narcisse Guérin using the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David, and, in 1822, Delacroix produced his first major painting, “The Barque of Dante,” which was exhibited at the Paris Salon (official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris) in 1822. The painting attracted general notice, but also produced a host of opponents, which fortunately did not dampen Delacroix’s zeal.
In 1825, he visited England, and, perhaps, that is why he was one of the first Parisians to wear a suit cut in the English style. It was around this same time that he produced lithographs that illustrated Shakespeare and soon thereafter Goethe’s tragic play Faust. He was also producing romantic works of various themes, and many of these continued to hold his interest over the next 30 years. Demonstrative of the romantic strands merging together during this period is Delacroix’s painting from 1827-1828 called the “Death of Sardanapalus,” which shows an emotionally charged scene with vivid colors, exotic costumes, and tragic happenings.
Because Delacroix was a prolific painter, one person described his labors as “incessant.” He was also an influential painter with one of his most influential paintings being “Liberty Leading the People.” It was finished in 1830 and shows Parisians taking up arms and marching under the tricolor banner of blue, white, and red, which represents liberty, equality, and fraternity. The government purchased it, but later government officials decided the painting was too inflammatory and removed it from public view (now it is displayed at the Louvre).
Delacroix also completed other well-known works. Some of his works include “Women of Algiers in their Apartment” in 1834, “Trajan’s Justice” in 1840, “The Farewell of Romeo and Juliet” in 1845, “Lion Devouring the She-goat” completed in 1848, and “Othello and Desdemona” finished in 1849. From 1857 to 1861 he worked on frescoes for the Chapelle des Anges at the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris. His works included “Saint Michael Slaying the Dragon,” “The Battle of Jacob with the Angel,” and “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple.”
Delacroix found his work tasking and fatiguing, which affected his health. He was plagued by weak digestion and suffered from a tubercular infection that affected his lungs and throat. Moreover, his poor health may have been further exacerbated by his high-strung nerves. To protect and safeguard his privacy, from 1834 onward, his faithful housekeeper, Jeanne-Marie le Guillou, cared for him and guarded his privacy. Guillou’s safeguarding allowed Delacroix to work freely into his later years. In addition, besides his home in Paris, beginning in 1844 he also lived in a small cottage in countryside of Champrosay (now Draveil), which helped alleviate his stress.
In 1862, French artists united and Delacroix participated in the creation of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. His friend, writer Théophile Gautier, became chairman, and painter Aimé Millet acted as deputy chairman. Besides Delacroix, the society’s committee consisted of painters Carrier-Belleuse and Puvis de Chavannes. Among the exhibitors were Léon Bonnat, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Charles-François Daubigny, Gustave Doré, and Édouard Manet. A year after Delacroix’s death, the society exhibited 248 of his works, which also happened to be the last exhibition the society held.
Two months prior to Delacroix’s death, most people were unaware he was severely ill. He died on 13 August 1863 from consumption and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. The Dunfermline Saturday Press noted at his death, “No one now, as was the case formerly, will refuse him the title of painter, though many attribute more power than harmony to his colouring.” Another reviewer of Delacroix’s skills described his abilities in much more flattering terms stating:
“[He was] the Victor Hugo of painting. He was the chief of the school of colour and effect as opposed to the school of form … He was a careless draughtsman, but prolific in invention, vigorous in conception, intensely dramatic, a master of chiaroscuro and colour, and a determined enemy of conventionally and cold classic correctness.”
-  Smith, Jean Edward, John Marshall, 2014, p. 587.
-  “The Late Eugene Delacroix,” in Dunfermline Saturday Press, 22 August 1863, p. 6.
-  The Illustrated London News, Volume 34, 1863, p. 208.