Delacroix was born at Charenton (Saint-Maurice), Val de Marne département, in the Île de France région near Paris, France.
There is reason to believe that his father, Charles Delacroix, was infertile at the time of Eugène's conception and that his real father was Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family and successor of C. Delacroix as minister of the foreign affairs, and whom the adult Eugène resembled in appearance and character. Throughout his career as a painter, he was protected by Talleyrand, who served successively the Restoration and king Louis-Philippe, and ultimately as ambassador of France in Great Britain, and later by Talleyrand's grandson, duke of Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and speaker of the French house of commons.
His early education was at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he steeped himself in the classics and won awards for drawing. In 1815 he began his training with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in the neoclassical style of Jacques-Louis David. An early church commission, The Virgin of the Harvest, (1819), displays a Raphaelesque influence, but another such commission, The Virgin of the Sacred Heart, (1821), evidences a freer interpretation. It precedes the influence of the more colorful and rich style of the Flemish painter a Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and fellow French artist Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), whose works marked an introduction to Romanticism in art.
The impact of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa was profound, and stimulated Delacroix to produce his first major painting, The Barque of Dante, which was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1822. The work caused a sensation, and was largely derided by the public and officialdom, yet was purchased by the State for the Luxembourg Galleries; the pattern of widespread opposition to his work, countered by a vigorous, enlightened support, would continue throughout his life. Two years later he again achieved popular success for his Massacre at Chios.
Delacroix's painting of The Massacre at Chios (also called Massacre at Scio, French: Scènes des massacres de Scio), shows sick, dying Greek civilians about to be slaughtered by the Turks. One of several paintings he made of this contemporary event, it expresses sympathy for the Greek cause in their war of independence against the Turks, a popular sentiment at the time for the French people. Delacroix was quickly recognized as a leading painter in the new Romantic style, and the picture was bought by the state. His depiction of suffering was controversial however, as there was no glorious event taking place, no patriots raising their swords in valour as in David's Oath of the Horatii, only a disaster. Many critics deplored the painting's despairing tone; the artist Antoine-Jean Gros called it "a massacre of art". The pathos in the depiction of an infant clutching its dead mother's breast had an especially powerful effect, although this detail was condemned as unfit for art by Delacroix's critics. A viewing of the paintings of John Constable prompted Delacroix to make extensive, freely painted changes to the sky and distant landscape.
Delacroix produced a second painting (Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi) in support of the Greeks in their war for independence, this time referring to the capture of Missolonghi by Turkish forces in 1825. With a restraint of palette appropriate to the allegory, Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi displays a woman in Greek costume with her breast bared, arms half-raised in an imploring gesture before the horrible scene: the suicide of the Greeks, who chose to kill themselves and destroy their city rather than surrender to the Turks. A hand is seen at the bottom, the body having being crushed by rubble. The whole picture serves as a monument to the people of Missolonghi and to the idea of freedom against tyrannical rule. This event interested Delacroix not only for his sympathies with the Greeks, but also because the poet Byron, whom Delacroix greatly admired, had died there.
A trip to England in 1825 included visits to Thomas Lawrence and Richard Bonington, and the color and handling of English painting provided impetus for his only full-length portrait, the elegant Portrait of Louis-Auguste Schwiter, (1826-30). At roughly the same time, Delacroix was creating romantic works of numerous themes, many of which would continue to interest him for over thirty years. By 1825 he was producing lithographs illustrating Shakespeare, and soon thereafter lithographs and paintings from Goethe's Faust. Paintings such as The Combat of the Giaour and Hassan, (1826), and Woman with Parrot, (1827), introduced subjects of violence and sensuality which would prove to be recurrent.
These various romantic strands came together in the The Death of Sardanapalus, (1827-8). Delacroix's painting of the death of the Assyrian king Sardanapalus shows an emotionally stirring scene alive with beautiful colours, exotic costumes and tragic events. The Death of Sardanapalus, depicts the besieged king watching impassively as guards carry out his orders to kill his servants, concubines and animals. The literary source is a play by Byron, although the play does not specifically mention any massacre of concubines.
The Death of Sardanapalus attitude of calm detachment is a familiar pose in Romantic imagery in this period in Europe. The painting, which was not exhibited again for many years afterward, has been regarded by some critics as a gruesome fantasy involving death and lust. Especially shocking is the struggle of a nude woman whose throat is about to be cut, a scene placed prominently in the foreground for maximum impact. However, the sensuous beauty and exotic colours of the composition make the picture appear pleasing and shocking at the same time.
A variety of Romantic interests were again synthesized in The Murder of the Bishop of Liège, (1829). It also borrowed from a literary source, this time Scott, and depicts a scene from the Middle Ages, that of the murder of Louis de Bourbon, Bishop of Liège amidst an orgy sponsored by his captor, William de la Marck. Set in an immense vaulted interior which Delacroix based on sketches of the Palais de Justice in Rouen and Westminster Hall, the drama plays out in chiaroscuro, organized around a brilliantly lit stretch of tablecloth. In 1855 a critic described the painting's vibrant handling as "Less finished than a painting, more finished than a sketch, The Murder of the Bishop of Liège was left by the painter at that supreme moment when one more stroke of the brush would have ruined everything".
Delacroix's most influential work came in 1830 with the painting Liberty Leading the People , which for choice of subject and technique highlights the differences between the Romantic approach and the neoclassical style. Probably Delacroix's best known painting, it is an unforgettable image of Parisians, having taken up arms, marching forward under the banner of the tricolour representing liberty and freedom; Delacroix was inspired by contemporary events to invoke the Romantic image of the spirit of liberty. The soldiers lying dead in the foreground offer poignant counterpoint to the symbolic female figure, who is illuminated triumphantly, as if in a spotlight.
The French government bought the painting but officials deemed its glorification of liberty too inflammatory and removed it from public view. Nonetheless, Delacroix still received many government commissions for murals and ceiling paintings. He seems to have been trying to represent the spirit and the character of the people, rather than glorify the actual event, a revolution against King Charles X which did little other than bring in a different king, Louis-Philippe, to power.
Following the Revolution of 1848 that saw the end of the reign of King Louis Philippe, Delacroix' painting, Liberty Leading the People, was finally put on display by the newly elected President, Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III.) Today, it is visible in the Louvre museum.
The boy holding a gun up on the right is sometimes thought to be an inspiration of the Gavroche character in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables.
In 1832, he traveled to Spain and North Africa, as part of a diplomatic mission to Morocco shortly after the French conquered Algeria. He went not primarily to study art, but to escape from the civilization of Paris, in hopes of seeing a more primitive culture. He eventually produced over 100 paintings and drawings of scenes from or based on the life of the people of North Africa, and added a new and personal chapter to the interest in Orientalism. Delacroix was entranced by the people and the costumes, and the trip would inform the subject matter of a great many of his future paintings. He believed that the North Africans, in their attire and their attitudes, provided a visual equivalent to the people of Classical Rome and Greece.
He managed to sketch some women secretly in Algiers, as in the painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834), but generally he encountered difficulty in finding Moslem women to pose for him because of Muslim rules requiring that women be covered. Less problematical was the painting of Jewish women in North Africa, as subjects for the Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1837-41).
While in Tangier he made many sketches of the people and the city, subjects to which he would return until the end of his life. Animals--the embodiment of Romantic passion-- were incorporated into paintings such as Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable (1860), The Lion Hunt (of which there exists many versions, painted between 1856 and 1861), and Arab Saddling his Horse (1855).
In 1838 Delacroix exhibited Medea about to Kill Her Children, which created a sensation at the Salon. His first large-scale treatment of a scene from Greek mythology, the painting depicts Medea clutching her children, dagger drawn to slay them in vengeance for her abandonment by Jason. The three nude figures form an animated pyramid, bathed in a raking light which penetrates the grotto in which Medea has hidden. Though the painting was quickly purchased by the State, Delacroix was disappointed when it was sent to the Lille Museé des Beaux-Arts; he had intended for it to hang at the Luxembourg, where it would have joined The Barque of Dante and Scenes from the Massacres of Chios.
Self-portrait, 1837. "Eugène Delacroix was a curious mixture of skepticism, politeness, dandyism, willpower, cleverness, despotism, and finally, a kind of special goodness and tenderness that always accompanies genius".
From 1833 Delacroix received numerous commissions to decorate public buildings in Paris. In that year he began work for the Salon du Roi in the Chambre des Députés, Palais Bourbon, which was not completed until 1837. For the next ten years he painted in both the Library at the Palais Bourbon and the Library at the Palais du Luxembourg. In 1843 he decorated the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement with a large Pietà, and from 1848 to 1850 he painted the ceiling in the Galerie d'Apollon of the Louvre. From 1857 to 1861 he worked in the Chapelle des Agnes at St. Sulpice. These commissions offered him the opportunity to compose on a large scale in an architectural setting, much as had those masters he admired, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens.
The work was fatiguing, and during these years he suffered from an increasingly fragile constitution. In addition to his home in Paris, from 1844 he also lived at a small cottage in Champrosay, where he found respite in the countryside. From 1834 until his death, he was faithfully cared for by his housekeeper, Jeanne-Marie le Guillou, who zealously guarded his privacy, and whose devotion prolonged his life and his ability to continue working in his later years.
In 1862 Delacroix participated in the creation of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. His friend, the writer Théophile Gautier, became chairman, with the painter Aimé Millet acting as deputy chairman. In addition to Delacroix, the committee was composed of the painters Carrier-Belleuse and Puvis de Chavannes. Among the exhibitors were Léon Bonnat, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Charles-François Daubigny, Gustave Doré, and Édouard Manet. Just after his death in 1863, the society organized a retrospective exhibition of 248 paintings and lithographs by Delacroix- and ceased to mount any further exhibitions.
Eugène Delacroix died in Paris, France and was buried there in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
His house, formerly situated along the canal of the Marne, is now near the exit of the motorway leading from Paris to central Germany.