BOOK REVIEW / A pure classic - with a lingering whiff of sulphur: 'Delacroix: A Life' - Timothy Wilson-Smith: Constable, 16.96 pounds

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THIS IS a cautious, circumspect life of an artist whose death-laden and erotic paintings - The Barque of Dante, The Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapolus - scandalised salon viewers in the 1820s and who continued to shock until his death in 1864. His arch-rival Ingres, who barred his entry into the Academy for years, once opened all the windows after Delacroix left, complaining of a lingering smell of sulphur.

Timothy Wilson-Smith refuses to paint a heady romantic portrait. His dry, epigrammatic style reflects his subject's own self-presentation: the dapper, restrained English dress, the welcoming of state commissions, the desire to be lauded by the respectable, the repeated battering on the doors of the Academy. When acclaimed as 'the Victor Hugo of painting', he replied icily: 'Sir, I am a pure classic.' This Delacroix is the avid reader of Voltaire, the lover of unity who prefers Racine to Shakespeare, Mozart to Beethoven, the cynic (or stoic) who rejects the 19th-century cult of progress. A persuasive reading, were it not for the evidence of his art, with its wheeling horses, voluptuous women and flowing planes of light, the passion beneath the pose evoked in Baudelaire's image, 'a volcanic crater artistically concealed behind bouquets of flowers'.

Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix was born in 1798 at Charenton-Saint-Maurice, on the fringes of Paris, the fourth child of a privileged bourgeois family. Delacroix senior, Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Directory in 1795, was not, however, his father: rumours that he was the son of Talleyrand (more likely of Guillemardet, formerly ambassador to Spain) were used to explain his 'aristocratic' demeanour. But his courtesy, fervent friendships and inability to commit himself to any of his mistresses may have been a response to early insecurity: the deaths of his father, his idealised older brother and his mother, and the loss of a once large inheritance. A final blow was the early death of his nephew Charles, more like a younger brother. Although never reclusive, towards the end of his life he treasured a degree of isolation, fiercely guarded by his servant, Jenny Le Guillou.

Drawing on the letters and the famous Journal, Wilson-Smith writes well on the lifelong importance of Delacroix's friends and relations, giving a touching account, for example, of his affection for Chopin and George Sand (although I blenched at such summaries as 'it was not just that George Sand was bossy. Her children were impossible'). But while he diligently traces all the semi- detached affairs, especially with the generous, society-loving Josephine de Forget, he seems baffled by Delacroix's attitude to women (a mix of desire and disdain). The painter's emotional life and sexuality remain enigmatic.

The book's virtues are contextual rather than personal. It guides us skilfully through the reversals of French history, from the Consulate to the Second Empire, and is admirably clear on the cultural waves that accompanied them. Delacroix's youthful tastes and training were undoubtedly classical: his first idol was Dante and he never lost an admiration for Raphael, but, as Wilson-Smith rightly says, in the 1820s no one disputed the primacy of literature, and, like Lamartine, Vigny and Hugo, he responded to English writers - to the orientalism of Byron, the medievalism of Scott - and to Goethe's Faust. Rejecting the austerity of David and Ingres, he took as his models the intense, bravura painting of Gericault and Gros and as his masters Veronese, Rubens and Titian. His Anglophilia was enhanced by a trip to England in 1825, just as his fascination with Arab culture was confirmed by the visit to Morocco in 1832. History for Delacroix was a battle of great forces, of civilisation against darkness; the quality that was most needed, he declared, was courage - 'to make a god of a beauty which is unquiet'.

His bare-breasted Liberty leading the people, a tribute to the revolution of 1830, is free and heroic yet essentially tragic. Religion was no consolation: what was there after death, he asked George Sand, but 'night, dreadful night'? He could paint tender portraits and pastorals but his enduring theme, from the early works to the great public murals and the late paintings of St Sulpice, is struggle: Jacob wrestling with the Angel, St Michael and the Archangel vanquishing the Demon.

Wilson-Smith does not deny Delacroix's complexity, but he cannot convey it: the volcanic flame that inspired the next generation and fired Van Gogh and Cezanne is cold. Despite its well-researched precision, this book reminds one of Delacroix's own painting of The Execution of the Doge Marino Falieri - a periphery crowded with figures and detail, but the centre void, a blank space of stairs and, at their foot, a corpse.