The Barque of Dante

Title: Dante and Virgil in Hell, a.k.a. The Barque of Dante
Artist: Eugene Delacroix
Date: 1822
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Location: The Louvre, Paris
Dimensions: Height—1.89m; width—2.41m

The image of Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx in a boat manned by Phlegyas is a familiar story to us. Having read Dante’s Inferno just several weeks ago, this painting seemed an appropriate choice for this project since it encapsulates, not only class material we have already studied, but my particular topic of the danger and threat of water. The painting was completed in 1822 by a new and (at the time) relatively undiscovered artist. In this painting, Eugene Delacroix created a vivid, memorable, dramatic scene, which served to secured his future fame. He also pushed the neo-classical genre of art away in favor of the budding Romantic era. Though he still takes on a classical theme, his characters are highly emotional, the scenery is vibrant and dramatic, and the story is told passionately with great focus on the individual (in this case, Dante.)
Interestingly enough, one of Delacroix’s heroes was his good friend, Theodore Gericault (who appears in this gallery twice.) Delacroix’s admired his friend’s adeptness at portraying emotional scenes as well as his ability to depict violent motion. Delacroix reveals that Gericault’s Raft of Medusa was the inspiration and starting point for his first major work, The Barque of Dante. Although the piece of art is now respected—it is, after all, displayed in the Louvre, one of the most highly regarded museums in the world—it was not met with that same admiration when Delacroix first completed it. In fact, many people, public and official alike, criticized the piece for lack of visual perfection in brush strokes, patterns, etc. (Now, obviously, this is respected as a way to portray certain emotions.) Despite early criticism, Delacroix became a highly-respected artist, painting several well-known paintings including the inflammatory Liberty Leading the People. Delacroix had a strong attraction to colors and capturing movement, and both of those strategies are displayed in The Barque of Dante, along with most of his other works.
The Barque of Dante itself is a highly dramatic scene. Dante flails in disgust and panic in the tiny boat, while a calm, striking Virgil stands sturdily beside him, attempting to comfort the terrified passenger. The oar-man, Phlegyas, works at the bow of the boat, mostly naked, strong, sure of himself in this land he treads so often. Certainly the most disturbing part of the picture is the water and what lies within its depths: empty souls with vividly desperate, hungry flesh float lifelessly alongside the boat while others tear at the sides of the wood, scratch and bite at each other, or cling to the oar in attempt to somehow escape this God-forsaken place. The water echoes their desperation and agony as it whips and whirls, sending waves over their bodies and onto the boat. Notice that the skin of all these lost souls is shockingly and blatantly portrayed, as is Phlegyas’, while Dante and Virgil, the only two innocent souls in the picture, are fully clothed with only their faces revealed. The white headdress that Virgil wears helps to emphasize his wisdom and courage, while the red they both wear serves to unify the painting, linking the backdrop of the seventh layer of Hell with the forefront depiction of the eight layer. Though water is not the villain in this picture, it certainly symbolizes the anger, frustration, and agony of the empty souls in Hell. It is an image of their torture, and it puts the agitation they feel into a viewable action. The water and its murky contents are indeed a dangerous threat to Dante in this painting.

Delacroix, Eugene. The Barque of Dante. 1822. The Louvre, Paris. The Louvre Museum. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.


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