Picture Fryderyk Chopin’s face. Chances are your mind’s eye is recalling a painting by Eugène Delacroix. There are actually plenty of Chopin portraits left to us, but it’s Delacroix’s image that demands attention. It captures “the image of the Romantic hero at its purest,” as art historian H.W. Janson put it. It’s also an image of Chopin as seen by one of his closest friends.
Delacroix was 12 years older than Chopin and already famous, thanks to his dynamic, richly colored painting "The Massacre of Chios" from 1824. It established Delacroix as a leading Romantic artist.
Chopin’s lover, George Sand, introduced the painter to the pianist not long before Delacroix began his iconic portrait of Chopin in 1838. (He included both Chopin and Sand in the painting, which he never completed, but after his death the two depictions were cut apart and sold separately. You can see Sand’s portrait here.)
Chopin and Delacroix became fast friends. Frequenters of the Paris salons, they shared an interest in fashion, cultivating the image of a “dandy.” Most of all, they shared a passion for music. Sand once described Delacroix standing alongside the piano as Chopin played: “He embarks on a sort of casual improvisation, then stops. ‘Go on, go on,’ exclaims Delacroix, ‘That's not the end!' 'It's not even a beginning…. I'm trying to find the right color, but I can't even get the form. You won't find the one without the other....'”
Chopin was genuinely touched by his friend’s appreciation of his art. But, similar to his relationships with other composers, he did not seem capable of returning the favor. To quote Sand once more: “Chopin does not understand Delacroix. He has esteem, affection and respect for the man, but he detests the artist…. He has much wit, tact and malice, but he understands nothing of pictures or statuary.”
If Delacroix knew how Chopin felt, he didn’t let on. After the composer’s death in 1849, Delacroix inscribed a sketch with the words “Dear Chopin.” Delacroix’s final tribute to his friend, the great poet of the piano. - Don Lee