Alastair Sooke visits Eugène Delacroix’s studio in Paris

A trip to the 19th-century genius's apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés sheds light on why he was such an inspiration to Picasso


There is a brilliant anecdote that records the grudging respect that Pablo Picasso felt for the 19th-century French painter Eugène Delacroix, the subject of a major new exhibition at the National Gallery in London. 

One morning in 1946, Picasso arrived at the Louvre. He had been invited to place a selection of his pictures alongside masterpieces in the museum, as an “experiment”. At his suggestion, the guards paraded his artworks among the impressive paintings by Delacroix that still occupy the vast gallery dedicated to 19th-century French art.

The Death of Sardanapalus – one of the works that can be seen at the National Gallery until 22nd May

One of the paintings with which Picasso wished to compare his own work was Delacroix’s sensuous Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834), inspired by the French artist’s journey across North Africa in 1832. Later, during the 1950s, Picasso would create a series of 15 works in honour of Delacroix’s painting. One of his reinterpretations currently holds the record as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, at £102.6 million.

At the time, though, Picasso said nothing until he got home to his lover, Françoise Gilot. When she asked him how he felt about Delacroix, his eyes narrowed, and he replied: “That b*****d. He’s really good.”

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Claude Monet was among the young artists to be inspired by and become obsessed with Delacroix, who had been known as the leader of Romantic painting in France ever since his first exhibited picture, the sensational Barque of Dante, had scandalised the Salon in 1822.

Monet tried to visit Delacroix in the studio that he had constructed for himself, with a large central window to let in lots of natural light, overlooking a secluded garden behind his apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank of the Seine. Delacroix, always aloof and antisocial, received few visitors. So Monet had to settle for watching him at work through the window of a friend’s apartment, which offered a view onto the older artist’s studio.

Delacroix spent years working on the frescoes for the church of Saint-Sulpice

Today, that studio, at 6 Rue de Furstenberg, is preserved as the Musée National Eugène Delacroix (pictured above). It doesn’t contain many of Delacroix’s possessions, because his worldly goods were sold off in 1864 a year after his death. Yet, despite this, anyone who wishes to understand what Delacroix accomplished should visit, since it provides insights into what made him tick.

He only relocated to the studio towards the end of his life, in 1857. By then, he had been working for almost a decade on his epic decorations for the Chapel of the Holy Angels in the church of Saint-Sulpice. Illness, however, was making it difficult for him to travel to the church from his previous address on the Right Bank. So he set about finding somewhere closer. Eventually, he alighted upon a “charming” (as he put it) first-floor apartment in one of the outbuildings linked to the old abbey palace of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. After enquiring whether he could have exclusive access to the grand staircase that led up to the apartment from a courtyard with an archway adjoining the street, he signed a 15-year lease. This document also contained the crucial proviso that he could build a studio in the pretty garden. Delacroix designed the façade of his new studio himself.

Its appearance recalls the neoclassical architecture of Britain, whose culture obsessed him: he prided himself on dressing like an English dandy, loved the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Walter Scott, and admired the freshness of Constable’s landscapes. It was at 6 Rue de Furstenberg that Delacroix, one of the great rebels of 19th-century French art, finally found happiness. It is satisfying to think of him peacefully daydreaming in his cloistered garden – where his presence remains almost palpable, even today. 

For more details about the studio, visit Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Artist is at the National Gallery until 22 May –

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, a film based on the Royal Academy exhibition of the same name, takes cinema-goers on a tour of the gardens that have inspired some of the world’s best known masterpieces. It’s released on 12 April in the UK and worldwide from 24 May. For more information about screenings, go to:

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