Art History Paper on Lion Hunt by Eugene Delacroix

Art History Paper on Lion Hunt by Eugene Delacroix

This paper examines the painting "Lion Hunt" by Eugene Delacroix, 1861, and discusses its relation with painter's view about nature, while relating this view to the social and historical background of that time period to see its origin and impact.

The whole picture depicts a lion hunting scene in Morocco, a northern African Kingdom where Delacroix visited with French Ambassy in 1832. On the first glance of this painting, the viewer's eyes can be easily drawn to the strong use of color in it. Eight hunters, dressed bright red mantle and white vest, with turbans on head, were evenly distributed in the painting, engaging in a violent fight with two lions. The lions, drawn in light yellow, show strength and fierceness towards hunters. The one in the foreground, a male lion, is seizing the chest of a hunter whose shoe has already been whipped off, roaring backward to intimidate two other hunters who were trying to poke it with spear and sword. Behind them lies a hunter already beaten by the lion. Beside the roaring lion crouches another hunter who was frightened to earth, holding up his arm to protect himself. The other lion, obviously the mate of the former lion, is pinning down on the back of a horse and roaring forward. The horse was knocked down to the ground mourning, its master hiding behind it. Behind the female lion approaches another spear hunter, aiming at the back of lion. A few yards away from this battle the eighth hunter, perhaps the leader, is mounting on the horse back commanding his man fighting. Away from this violence going on, a barren shore and billowing cold sea stretches into distance, together with an ever changing stormy depicted sky in the background, which is a commonly used characteristic to identify Delacroix's work.

Upon seeing this work of art, the viewer’s eyes may easily be drawn to the strong use of color in the picture. As a leading figure in Romanticism, Delacroix utilizes colors freely and expressively. In this work, bright colors dominate the hunting scene, giving audience a sense of tension and movement. The red mantles of the hunters represent aggression and belligerence, the bright yellow of the lions represents energy and fierce. This setting of color can be partly traced back to Rubens, an Italian baroque painter who also loves playing with movement and color. In his work "lion hunt" and "Daniel in the Lion's Den", similar subject and color were used, exemplifying Rubens's influence on Delacroix.

Although Delacroix's lion hunt derived its subject from former paintings by Rubens, there are some uniqueness which Delacroix infused into his painting, first of which is about mood. Delacroix believed that painting should present itself as "A feast to the eye", but only the color, not the mood of this "lion hunt", follows his theorem. The hunters and lions are in bright, but the gloomy background departs far from vividness. Stormy sky diffused with impending dark clouds, freezing sea billowing furiously, the whole landscape conveys a feeling of depression. If we take a look at Rubens's lion hunt, we can notice the blend of light blue and yellow in the landscape. Though some gray color shows in sky, it only serves the whole a sense of tension, not melancholy. Similar landscape is fairly common in hunting scene throughout Europe, for instance: wolf and fox hunt by. Rubens in 1615-1621 and The Stag Hunt, from Pastoral Hunting Scenes, c. 1775. An pioneer and strong advocate of vivid color, Delacroix avoids using gray color in all his works, why he did depict this hunting scene with blended dark colors, building gloom in a violent hunt? We may return to this question later.
Another nonnegligent change in Delacroix's lion hunt is the relation between landscape and figures. Hunting scene has long been a subject of art since ancient fresco. But to only talk about artworks that share resemblance to our painting, I will pick paintings since Renaissance period. If we look at stag hunt by Master of the Housebook or Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet in 1485. We can see a clear plenary style typical in Renaissance painting: On one plane, three hunters stand side by side, blowing horns and shouting to command their hunting dogs. On the other plane, at the leftmost of the picture, a forest is delineated representing the landscape on which the hunting scene is taking place. In this period of time, figures and landscape are independent, standing on different planes with little interaction. As time progresses, a baroque style of hunting scene emerges, an example would again be Rubens., In his lion hunt, plane dissolved. Rubens "disintegrates the old plane into strongly emphasized receding sequences" and intensifies the movement of figure. The hunters and lions grapple into a mass in the foreground. Apart from the figures, Rubens unified his composition by setting a low horizon in the distance against an open and ever-changing bright sky. In his picture, the landscape is conveying the same emotion as the hunting scene, but fairly complementary. The viewer's eye is primarily attracted to the fierceness of foreground, with little attention of the landscape behind. This may happen because of the high density of figures in the front. Cramming such a violent battle in a small space, Rubens to some extent fails to let the feeling flow fluently into the landscape, which seems still a little too tranquil. In this sense, Rubens's lion hunt put an emphasis on the hunting scene itself, and sees landscape only as a complement. Now let's go back to Delacroix. In his lion hunt, figures are distributed evenly, roughly in a circle. Every identity and animal can be clearly traced, a unifying rhythm resides in the seemingly chaos battle. In terms of landscape, horizon is set higher compared to Rubens, and a strong expressive use of color depicts a more powerful version of background. In this way, foreground turns less crowded and tensioned, while background gains more power and strength. Figures and landscape reach a perfect harmony unseen before! Finally the picture is presented as a whole, a harmonious combination of human, animals and nature power, and a never-ending battle among them.
In terms of theme, Delacroix is also groundbreaking in this picture. Throughout the history of art, hunting scene is related to triumph and conquer. Dating back to the cave painting in Lascaux, France, stags hunting are commonly shown, perhaps for the "magic" to help hunters catch a real stag in their expenditure, later hunting scenes, though differentiate in types of animals, are mostly in a formula that "human chase, animals run and being killed". In another word, human always take the triumph in such paintings. In time, hunting scene has become a subject where human show its strength and domination upon nature, and a heroic figure is sometimes drawn to represent human power, such as the man on the horseback in Rubens's lion hunt. In Delacroix's earlier painting, such domination still finds its hints. In his two lion hunts drawn in 1855 and 1858, Delacroix conveys the common belief that human can "triumph over a turbulent creation". Hunters show their power again and lions, though struggling, cannot avoid their "fate" to be hunted. In the 1861 version of lion hunt, however, Delacroix's attitude radically changed. From this picture, one can hardly tell whether the hunters, or the lions, are at advantage. All the hunters are involved in a hard fight with lions, seemingly tired and were pushed into a tight corner. The two lions, clawing and pinning on several hunters, looks energetic, bravely facing the large number of hunters around. The result of battle was ambiguous.
Gloomy mood, rearrangement of landscape and figures, ambiguous result of hunt. Why did Delacroix applied those rarely seen characteristics to the lion hunt? I think it has something to do with Delacroix's view about nature.

Throughout the History, animals have always been a major subject in artworks. And the role of animals has changed in time. According to John Berger "why look at animals", animals "first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.", in that time period, human remained awe towards nature, and thought of animals as something oracular that can give them food and good luck. As time evolves, human's knowledge of nature has accumulated, so is a rising desire to study animals as a partner of human. "Animals are born, are sentient and are mortal. In these sense they resemble human." Artists then began to find the parallel between human and animals. They have developed the subject of physiognomy, and painted various sketches which depicted human's head as animal-like. For example, "the chain of being" by Lavater, 1806. Delacroix showed great enthusiasm in this physiognomy fever. In a sketch book Delacroix used in around 1820, "he mentioned earlier works of Le Brun and Della Porta", also drawing a frog like man profile. This interest continued to show itself in some later works by Delacroix like "Caricatured Heads", and gradually went out of the frame of "physiognomy" into a study of whole body. In his paintings after 1830's, Delacroix paid more careful attention to the structural affinity between feline and human. And that is part of the reason he chose lion and tigers, animals with strong muscles and movements like human, as his main subject in his later life. Diverse in form, though, felines and human share a same structural composition in most works of Delacroix, just as it did in lion hunt. In this picture, the facial expressions, the muscles, and the forearms of lion all resemble those of human, seemingly energetic and strong. From this parallel depiction between lion and human, we can see that Delacroix sees animals as a source of imagination and art creation just as important as human. Animals and nature, in his hand, no longer serve for human, but hold their independent position as something respectful and worth studying.
Delacroix's respect for nature can also be grounded in his unique theme of lion hunt. Human no longer took domination over animals. In this contest, human and nature become opposing subjects, grappling together intensely. Human shows their ambition to conquer nature, while nature gives them a ferocious fight back. Delacroix realizes this inevitable and never-ending fight, and I think he is quite delightful to see it. Depicting the lions with "endless" energy and strong predatory instinct, Delacroix shows his obsession with the power of nature. Depicting the landscape with oppression and gloom, Delacroix recognizes the fury of nature, which can turn out to be a stormy and billowy fight against human beings. In his world of art, human is no longer the god of nature. Only through a hard struggle can we finally survive in this destructive force of nature.

We may now look at the historical background of that time period to further understand why Delacroix's obsession with nature is revolutionary. From early 18th century, Enlightenment movement has exerted its influence all over France. Enlightenment philosophers believe that "there were natural laws to the universe and that these laws could be discovered through rational thought." This fascination with reason also finds its way in art. Rococo style, full of frivolous decoration, was abandoned, and a new style called neoclassicism caught into fashion. Neoclassicism artists seek value from ancient Roman and Greek art, and their subjects are primarily from classic themes, or myths. This style of art became the mainstream of late 18th century even in the period of French Revolution and extended to early 19th. The leading artists of Neoclassicism include Jacques-louis David and Dominique Ingre. The conservative style of Neoclassicism also took over the Salon exhibition, only pictures that shows classic value and follow a rigorous academic theory and strong linear style could win applaud from critics but gradually, he found that artists can get their inspiration not only from myth, but also from the nature. Meanwhile, as science and anatomy progresses rapidly in 19th century, the beauty and truth behind nature is gradually revealed. Recognizing this "new" beauty, Delacroix was fascinated by the expressiveness and power of the natural world, especially during his trip to Morroco, where he had a lot of sketches about animals and Arabic landscapes.

Influence of that opinion?
Assyrian lion hunt