Eugène Delacroix, it seems, is having his moment. A retrospective of his paintings that began at the Louvre has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the critical consensus seems to be that a star is reborn. Everyone, of course, has heard of Delacroix, but for the past century or so no one has really cared very much about him. There was nothing especially wrong with him; it was just that there was little in his oeuvre that inspired great excitement. But for some reason the art-loving public has resolved to turn to him now in a state of receptivity, approaching fervor, that it could not have mustered a decade ago.

Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Self-Portrait with Green Vest’ (ca. 1837)
Delacroix’s ‘Self-Portrait with Green Vest’ (ca. 1837) Michel Urtado / RMN–Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)

For some critics, however, by which I mean me, this sudden and enthusiastic reassessment is baffling. I have long been aware of Delacroix’s eminence in the pantheon of French artists, but none of his works seemed quite equal to that esteem. This is not to deny that Delacroix was a good painter, but it is vigorously to question whether he was a great painter. And yet so many artists whom I admire more than Delacroix—van Gogh, Cézanne, and Picasso—spoke of him in terms of highest praise. How can it be that the querulous, demanding, infinitely discerning Degas eagerly collected 250 of Delacroix’s paintings and drawings, when Delacroix at his best could not rival Degas on a bad day?

The answer, as best I can determine, involves an art-historical calculation that was more important to his contemporaries than it should be to us. Delacroix, born into affluence and social prominence in 1798, was instrumental in introducing an entirely new spirit and formal language into visual art. He is the first modernist in painting, in exactly the sense in which his contemporaries Victor Hugo and Hector Berlioz were the first modernists in literature and music respectively. That is to say that although none of them was a true modernist—that movement would emerge long after they had established themselves in their careers—each fought for and achieved a new zone of impassioned freedom in his given art, a freedom that stood in explosive opposition to what preceded it and was the genesis of so much that followed.

Although Delacroix has always been famous for his thickly applied paint textures, it is astonishing how rarely the viscous pigment springs to life. The result, more often than not, is inert clumps of matter.

In the case of Delacroix, he liberated painting from the compositional rigidity of neoclassicism while endowing his work with a fougue—a flame and fury in the textures of the paint itself—that stood in such obvious contrast to the smooth, serenely flat canvases of his more academic contemporaries. Perhaps most of all, Delacroix pried open the very notion of what a painting could depict and be about. Entire registers of experience—geographical, in Arabia; temporal, in the Middle Ages; experiential, in the life of everyday men and women—that had seemed off-limits to serious artists were henceforth to replace the aristocratic fawning and neo-Platonic indirection of earlier art. Delacroix was not alone in this quest: He acknowledged his debt to the young Englishman Richard Parkes Bonington, whose brilliance would be far better known today had he not died at the age of 25 in 1828. Yet it was Delacroix who, for more than 40 crucial years, until his death in 1863, was the standard bearer of The New.

But these achievements of Delacroix, properly assessed, were more important in the context of art history than of art itself. If Hugo and Berlioz won similar battles in their disciplines, they also produced works that masterfully implemented those revolutionary innovations. With Delacroix, by contrast, one is apt to feel that many followers used his new language and engaged his new themes more compellingly than he did.

Gallery view of ‘Delacroix’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 6, 2019).
Gallery view of ‘Delacroix’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 6, 2019). Visible from this angle are, from left to right, Delacroix’s ‘Saint Sebastian Tended by the Holy Women’ (1836), ‘Basket of Flowers’ (1848-50), ‘Arch of Morning Glories’ (1848-49), and ‘Basket of Flowers’ (1848-49). Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nearly 150 works are included in the Met exhibition, ranging from small drawings to large paintings, as well as numerous prints and book illustrations. From all periods of Delacroix’s career, these pieces touch on the main themes of his work: The viewer will never have seen quite so many turbaned infidels raising their sabers in Byronic rage against persecuted Christians or quite so many kings and councilors parading about in the stockings and petticoats of the French Renaissance court.

Through no fault of the Met, however, the present exhibition leaves out some of the artist’s best works, which were deemed too important to leave the Louvre; among these are The Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, and Liberty Leading the People. The first of these three canvases, from 1824, depicts the contemporary uprising of the Greeks against their Ottoman overlords, who pass on horseback among the prostrate survivors of their aggressions. In the greenish-gray palette and tunnel-like progress to a distant vanishing point, Delacroix seems to have learned a great deal from Velázquez. This is almost a proto-realist work in its studious fidelity to observable reality.

Two years later, however, his depiction of the death of the Assyrian king Sardanapalus is conceived as a slightly woozy perspective that flattens and unfurls its dozen figures, naked or not, across the canvas in a highly artificial, almost abstract way. With its startling blast of crimson, this work is infused with the truth of art, if not gravity: The figures float freely through space in a way that perfectly corresponds to the opulent dissoluteness of their lives, and that is the entire point of the painting. Delacroix’s most famous work, surely, is Liberty Leading the People, painted a year after the 1830 Paris uprising against Charles X, which it commemorates. The incarnation of Liberty—a bare-breasted young woman—waves the tricolor aloft as she climbs over the dead and the moribund, leading into battle members of the bourgeoisie and the working class. At her side a young boy somewhat alarmingly brandishes a pistol in either hand.

If these three works were unable to travel, at least one of Delacroix’s finest paintings is indeed in the present show: Self-Portrait with Green Vest (ca. 1837). The mustachioed painter, his flowing hair carefully parted to either side, rises up against an unspecified brown wall and assesses the viewer with no obvious approbation.

But Delacroix is rarely that good. From the late 1820s onward, a literary sensibility overtakes his painting, to regrettable effect. It is no accident that some of his most representative works are illustrations of Dante, Shakespeare, and Tasso. But the besetting problem with this literary inclination is that it is more concerned with what is depicted than with how it is depicted.

Although Delacroix has always been famous for his thickly applied paint textures, it is astonishing how rarely the viscous pigment springs to life. Its application to the surface of the canvas is full of bravado, but the result, more often than not, is inert clumps of matter waiting for that Promethean fire by which, one generation later, the Impressionists would awaken them. In looking at his two depictions of baskets of flowers and fruits from 1849, weakly composed and chromatically dull, it is impossible not to think what Monet or Renoir, what Cézanne or Fantin-Latour, could have done—what they did do—with all those dahlias, asters, and peonies.

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Women of Algiers in Their Apartment’ (1834)
Eugène Delacroix, ‘Women of Algiers in Their Apartment’ (1834) Franck Raux / RMN-GP / Art Resource

Even one of the most famous paintings in the Met exhibition, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834), is marred by its inept execution, despite its status as a forerunner of Courbet and Realism. The three seated women occupy an interior space whose perspective is incoherent, while the turbaned woman on the right twists her body backward in a way that is anatomically baffling and, as so often in Delacroix, results from his insurmountable weaknesses as a draftsman. It is difficult to see this painting without longing for the Apollonian perfection of Ingres, a very different and incalculably greater artist.