"Mal du siècle" and romantic revolution

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Title: Dante and Virgil.

Author : DELACROIX Eugène (1798 - 1863)

Creation date : 1822

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 189 - Width 241.5

Technique and other indications: Also known as Dante's boat Oil on canvas

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 17-633012 / INV 3820

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: April 2011


"Mal du siècle" and romantic revolution


Historical context

The period of the Restoration is crossed by contradictory currents. Already won, thanks to Mme de Staël, to the German philosophical drama (Faust de Goethe), English novel (Walter Scott), lyric poetry (Lord Byron), Delacroix finds in Dante, Shakespeare or Ossian a source of emotion necessary for his art.

Image Analysis

Song VIII of Hell of The Divine Comedy inspired Delacroix with the subject of his first “stroke of fortune” at the Salon of 1822.

Dante and Virgil, standing on a boat guided by Phlegias, cross the Styx towards the infernal City. The damned cling to their boat in an attempt to escape. Virgil grabs Dante's left hand, who, frightened, raises his right arm to protect himself.
Amply draped, the bodies of the poets are hardly suggested. The covered head of Dante, and that crowned with laurel by Virgil, reflect the strength of the soul and contrast with the twisting of the bodies of the damned and the torso of Phlegias.
In the foreground on the left, a man holds the boat with his teeth. His face is contorted with dread, and his eyes bulging. The one who tries to climb is "the best face" according to Delacroix, who painted it quickly, electrifying to the reading of song VIII by his friend Pietri and to the music. Another, at the end of his strength, lets himself be swallowed up by the Styx while a man tries to climb aboard by his side, leaning on a woman who desperately clings to the boat.
The sketchy background fades into the haze. But the Styx vibrates with energy like the sky enveloping them all.
Delacroix doesn't have time to dwell on detail. The draperies, the tension of the muscles, the waves, the flames, the dark palette, the pale flesh, are no longer the elements of a story, but actors who set its tone and rhythm of the drama.


The poets united in the turmoil of hell are the artists contaminated by the evil of the century and united in the same fight. Life seems a frightful journey, the boat, imbued with an outdated religious humanism, the symbol of adrift souls. Only art can offer a happy path.

The work reflects the general mood inspired by the end of the liberal period of the Restoration and the reverses of the Revolution and the Empire. The elements, water and fire of Dante's Hell, cast the helpless man into disarray. Only the two artists escape the threat. Their power of imagination unites them in resistance to opposing forces.
But we must also see in this work a reflection of the artist's state of mind: when he is on the verge of ruin, Delacroix is ​​in love with a woman who feels nothing for him. Reading The Divine Comedy of Dante moves and consoles him. A very example of inspired art, this work is the expression of the drama of suffering and despair through color, light and gesture.

Dante and Virgil in the Underworld gives the signal for the romantic revolution. The large dimensions of the painting ennoble the literary theme hitherto considered secondary in academic art. Delacroix raises it high in the hierarchy of genres.

  • allegory
  • writers
  • Italy
  • Restoration
  • romanticism
  • Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von)
  • Dante (Alighieri)
  • Byron (Lord)
  • Evil of the century
  • Ossian
  • Shakespeare (William)
  • Art fair
  • Staël (Germaine de)


Charles Baudelaire Romantic Art, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 2001. Lee JONHSON The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix, Oxford, 1981 Barthélemy JOBERT Delacroix, Paris, Gallimard, 1997 Anne MARTIN-FUGIER The Romantics, Paris, Hachette coll. "Daily life", 1998. Jean-Pierre RIOUX and Jean-François SIRINELLI (dir.) Cultural history of France, volume III, “Lights and Freedom”, by Antoine de BAECQUE and Françoise MELONIOParis, Seuil, 1998.Maurice SERULLAZ Delacroix, Paris, Nathan, 1981 Collective The romantic years. French painting from 1815 to 1830, catalog of the exhibition at the Grand PalaisParis, RMN, 1996.

To cite this article

Malika DORBANI-BOUABDELLAH, "" Illness of the century "and romantic revolution"

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