The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix

The Barque of Dante by Delacroix (1822)

When I first saw today’s featured painting I was immediately reminded of Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, which was My Daily Art Display on June 10th.  There was something about the look of suffering and desperation on the faces of the men on Géricault’s sinking raft that I could see on the faces of Delacroix’s men in today’s painting.  My Daily Art Display today looks at the painting entitled Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.  The painting is also known as The Barque of Dante and was painted by the French artist in 1822.   

The painting is based on Canto VIII of the Inferno, the first part of the 14th century epic poem the Divine Comedy written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.  The poem is an allegory recording the journey of Dante through Hell along with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil.  According to the poem Hell is made up of nine concentric circles of suffering located within the Earth.  Each circle representing one sin and is the place where those who have committed that sin and who are unrepentant will end up and receive an appropriate punishment.  The sinners of each circle are punished in a fashion befitting their crimes.  Each sinner is made miserable for all of eternity by the key sin they have committed. The circles represent a gradual increase in wickedness, culminating at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.

The painting by Delacroix is based on the fifth circle and is all about the sin of Wrath.  The first circle is nominated as Limbo and the people in there have simply never been baptised into the Church.  The ninth circle is Treachery which is looked upon as the most heinous of sins.  I was amused to note that those unfortunates that had committed the sin of Lust were only allocated  the second circle – maybe for a hot blooded Italian, like Dante Alighieri, lust was hardly a sin at all !!!

The Fifth Circle of Hell is the swamp-like water of the river Styx and in its murky waters, the angry people fight each other on the surface, and the morose and brooding people lie gurgling beneath the water. The character in the poem, Phlegyas, the guardian of the river, reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across the River Styx in his skiff.  This lower part of Hell where the characters in the painting find themselves is the marshy swamp that lies outside the walls of the city of Dis, the City of the Dead, which houses the lower parts of Hell, and which we see burning in the left background of the painting.

Delacroix and Géricault comparison

At the beginning I said I saw a similarity between Géricault’s Raft of Medusa painting and this painting by Delacroix.  I actually managed to find a picture which also highlights the likeness in the facial expression of a man in each work.  The main picture, on the right, is of the man in the left foreground of today’s painting as he lies in the water and shown in the inset we have the face of the man who is in the centre of the Géricault’s raft looking sky-wards.  Go back to my earlier blog on Géricaults painting and see if you agree.  Some three years after Géricault completed his Raft of Medusa painting in 1819, Delacroix completed what was his first major work and one which he exhibited in the 1822 Salon, the art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  The oil on canvas painting which measures 189cms x 246cms now hangs in the Louvre.

Dante is given a steadying hand by Virgil as they falteringly stand up in the boat as it ploughs its way through the choppy water of the River Styx, which is heaving with the tormented souls who have been trapped in this fifth circle of hell for their sins of wrath.  The Neo-Classical style which was prevalent at the time can be seen in the way Delacroix has grouped his figures.  The main characters are set in the centre of the painting whilst the subsidiary figures are painted much lower down on a horizontal plane, each holding a classical pose which gives the artist a chance to concentrate on their musculature.  Look how the artist has depicted the gale-force weather condition the boat party have to endure.  See how Delacroix has depicted the blue garment of Phlegyas as he rows his boat.  Although wrapped around his body it flies wildly in the face of the strong wind which roars in from the left of the painting.  The guardian of the river is using every ounce of his strength as we see the muscles of his broad back ripple as he pulls on the oar.  He seems to be sure-footed as he has made this rough crossing many times.  Dante holds his right arm aloft to try and steady himself against the wind’s ferocity, whilst Virgil takes his other hand in an attempt to steady him against the onslaught.   The boat has slewed around and is a little off course as it tries to reach the fiery City of Death.

Look at the characters in the water.  A couple lay back exhausted whilst the others display the anger and hatred which has conspired to send them to this part of Hell.  Look at the piercing demonic eyes of the man that clings to the front of the boat and the staring rage of the man in the water in the right foreground as he seems to be attacking another with his teeth as his adversary grips him by the back of his neck.

The head and demonic face by Delacroix

Look carefully at the man clinging to the gunwale on the far side of the small boat.  See how the muscles and sinews in his arm are almost at breaking point as he tries to heave himself on board.  His reddened eyes are demonic.  It is a frightening depiction of a face and Delacroix admitted that it was his best depiction of a head in the painting.

I am interested to look at the contrast in expressions between our two main characters, Dante and Virgil.  Whereas Dante has a look of horror and fear on his face, Virgil’s facial expression is one of calm and tranquillity as if he is completely detached from what is going on around him. There is also a stark contrast of colours used by Delacroix.  Dante’s red cowl and the fiery inferno of Hell in the background is in sharp contrast to the blue of Phlegyas’ flowing blue robe.

There is such raw emotion in this painting.  We are looking at a world of insanity.  We see before us the rage of angry men who have yet to come to terms with their fate.  We almost wrap our arms around ourselves to protect us from the storm we view and this fifth circle – the circle of Wrath.  Delacroix had worked non-stop for very long hours for nearly three months to have this painting ready for the April opening of The Salon in 1822 and by the time he had completed this work he was totally exhausted.  The work was exhibited with the title:

“…Dante et Virgile conduits par Phlégias, traversent le lac qui entoure les murailles de la ville infernale de Dité…”

Which translated was:

“Dante and Virgil led by Phlegyas, across the lake surrounding the infernal city walls of Dis”

But later came to be known as its present title The Barque of Dante.  The painting received mainly favourable reviews and a few months later it was bought by the French State for 2000 Francs and it was housed in the Musée du Luxembourg but in 1874 transferred to its present location, The Louvre.