Theater & art

Frame by Frame

When Delacroix got behind dandyism

Harvard Art Museums

Can a drawing of a camel’s butt be Romantic?

Of course not. And for Eugene Delacroix, who made this drawing in 1827 or ’28, that was exactly the point.

The Romantics, political mavericks who celebrated a cult of feeling, were reacting against academic classicism, the rigid, hypermasculine style harking back to ancient Greece and Rome that had dominated French art since before the 1789 Revolution.

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By 1827, when Delacroix painted “The Death of Sardanapalus,” a scene of heaving, orgiastic violence, coolly unleashed by an Assyrian king with nothing left to lose, his name was virtually synonymous with Romanticism.

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But Delacroix was too much of an individualist to tolerate being the head of any movement. He was tiring of the rhetorical excesses of France’s leading Romantic writers — especially Victor Hugo, whose writing, said Delacroix, had “never approached within a hundred leagues of truth and simplicity.”

His sister had died in 1827, his friends were settling down. Having enjoyed a period of social and sensual indulgence, he was eager to enlist some kind of principle of restraint in his life. And also in his art.

Three years earlier, he had complained to his journal of the energy-sapping irritations of social life, and of the ignominy of inhabiting a body — the sorrow inherent in carrying “a hump upon our backs.”

And then he drew this camel. (It’s on display in Room 2200 of the new Harvard Art Museums). I think it’s a self-portrait in disguise.

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What could be more representative of the desire for solitude, after all — of the yearning to leave society behind — than a camel’s rear end?

Delacroix didn’t actually go to North Africa until 1832. But a couple of years before drawing this marvelously misshapen rump, he did go to England.

Camels are not native to Britain, but dandies are. Delacroix was already an Anglophile, an avid reader of Shakespeare and Walter Scott and above all Lord Byron, who had inspired his “Death of Sardanapalus.” But when Delacroix actually arrived in London, he was for the most part underwhelmed. The women were badly dressed, the lower classes ferociously savage, the aristocracy arrogant.

Still, there were English artists he admired — above all, Richard Parkes Bonington. And the burgeoning English cult of the dandy — occasioned largely by Beau Brummel, an inspired dresser and a friend of the Prince Regent — made a huge impact on him. (Delacroix would later take personal credit for introducing English boots and clothes to France.)

Dandyism celebrated the idea of nonchalance, detachment, and reserve — exactly what Delacroix was seeking at this point in his life. (When someone around this time described him as “the Victor Hugo of painting,” he coolly demurred: “Sir, I am a pure classic!”)

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Dandies cultivated a “carefully careless” manner, a kind of instinctive insouciance. “There is sometimes a certain ease in awkwardness,” wrote the mid-19th-century dandy Barbey d’Aurevilly, “which, if I am not mistaken, is more graceful than grace itself.”

So, look again at this camel. Is it not exquisitely dandified? Its “ease in awkwardness” is unmistakable. Its design is astonishing.

It may sound odd to represent your ideal self as a camel’s backside. But that, in the guise of a quest for truth and simplicity — and a reaction against Romantic over-reach — is exactly what I think Delacroix was doing.

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.