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The Barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in the Underworld)

Eugene Delacroix

The Barque of Dante (Dante and Virgil in the Underworld)

Eugene Delacroix
  • Date: 1822
  • Style: Romanticism
  • Genre: literary painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Tag: famous-people, boats-and-ships, seas-and-oceans, Dante, Virgil
  • Dimensions: 189 x 241.5 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

Delacroix, in his first attempt to gain entrance into the Paris Salon of 1922, worked non-stop for two and a half months on this, The Barque of Dante, his first entry into the art establishment. After it was completed, Delacroix was depleted and weak, and in need of recuperation. The critical reception was varied, from reports that it was drab, to the feeling that the artist had hope, to that he was already a distinguished colorist. That same summer, the state of France purchased the painting for 2,000 francs, and it was moved to the Museum of Luxembourg. Seven years after the artist’s death, it was moved to the Louvre, where it now resides.

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The Barque of Dante (French: La Barque de Dante), sometimes known as Dante and Virgil in Hell (Dante et Virgile aux enfers), is the first major painting by the French artist Eugène Delacroix, and one of the works signalling a shift in the character of narrative painting from Neo-Classicism towards the Romantic movement. It was completed for the opening of the Salon of 1822 and currently hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The painting is loosely based on fictional events taken from canto eight of Dante’s Inferno. A leaden, smoky mist and the blazing City of the Dead form the backdrop against which the poet Dante endures a fearful crossing of the River Styx. He is steadied by the learned poet of antiquity Virgil as they plough through waters heaving with tormented souls.

The arrangement of figures is for the most part compliant with the tenets of the cool, reflective Neo-Classicism that had dominated French painting for nearly four decades. There is a group of central upright figures, and a rational arrangement of subsidiary figures, all in horizontal planes, and observing studied poses.

The Barque of Dante was an artistically ambitious work, and although the composition is conventional, the painting in some important respects broke unmistakably free of the French Neo-Classical tradition.

The smoke to the rear and the fierce movement of the garment in which the oarsman Phlegyas is wrapped indicate a strong wind, and most of the individuals in the painting are facing into it. The river is choppy and the boat is lifted to the right, a point at which it is twisted toward the viewer. The party is driven to a destination known to be yet more inhospitable, by an oarsman whose sure-footed poise in the storm suggests his familiarity with these wild conditions. The city behind is a gigantic furnace. There is neither comfort nor a place of refuge in the painting’s world of rage, insanity and despair.

The painting explores the psychological states of the individuals it depicts, and uses compact, dramatic contrasts to highlight their different responses to their respective predicaments. Virgil’s detachment from the tumult surrounding him, and his concern for Dante’s well-being, is an obvious counterpoint to the latter’s fear, anxiety, and physical state of imbalance. The damned are either rapt in a piercing concentration upon some mad and gainless task, or are else apparently in a state of total helplessness and loss. Their lining of the boat takes an up-and-down wave-like form, echoing the choppy water and making the foot of the painting a region of perilous instability. The souls to the far left and right are like grotesque bookends, enclosing the action and adding a claustrophobic touch to the whole.

Delacroix wrote that his best painting of a head in this picture is that of the soul reaching with his forearm from the far side into the boat. Both Charles Le Brun’s, La Colère of 1668, and John Flaxman’s line engraving The Fiery Sepulchres, appearing as plate 11 in The Divine Poem of Dante Alighieri, 1807, are likely sources for this head.

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