To Paris, in pursuit of genius

Talent or ambition – which is more important in the making of a genius?

Tintoretto, Birth of a Genius.

Delacroix Retrospective.

Napoleon the Strategist.

These three exhibitions in Paris this spring demonstrated that both are needed.


Tintoretto – a precocious talent.

My knowledge of Tintoretto was limited to his vast, decorative canvasses of figures in 16th century dress, a rather lifeless heir to the tradition of Titian.

My interest was stimulated in Venice, by a visit to the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio; the church is decorated with several of his works, dark vertical spirals, illuminated with dramatic flashes of light. They were created in Tintoretto’s house nearby, where he had his studio.

This exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg showed early works by Tintoretto, “the little dyer” (named for his small stature and his father’s trade). As a young painter he had confidence in his own talent, and the ambition to succeed in a highly competitive city already full of great painters. Influenced by Titian and the masters of the day, he was also inspired by his powerful imagination.

He was not above undercutting the prices of his peers to secure commissions and increase his visibility. It was an effective commercial strategy, but not one that won him many friends among his fellow artists…..

As so often for me, it was his portraits that opened intimate windows onto the artist’s world.



Formerly attributed to Caracci, this Portrait of a Man could only be by the young Tintoretto’s hand.



Self portrait aged about twenty, Tintoretto c1539

Tintoret, La Naissance d’un Génie – at Musée du Luxembourg until 1st July


EugÈne Delacroix at the Louvre. 

Like Tintoretto, Eugene Delacroix had a precocious talent; he himself referred to his “infernal facility of the brush.” The first retrospective in Paris since 1963, with 189 works by the 19th century French master, this exhibition has been billed as the must-see show of the year. At the start of a long and successful career, Delacroix made his name with epic paintings on a large scale. Over time he changed subject matter, painting everything from violent revolution, battles and hunts, to flower paintings, crucifixions, and disasters at sea.

He produced etchings as a prolific illustrator, and delicate watercolours, but his first love was his “nice oily, thick paint”. 

Ironically he was not an enthusiastic traveller, but developed a fascination with exotic sensuality and colour through a visit to Morocco in 1832. He was the first influential French painter not to visit Italy.



Detail from a Moroccan battle scene


It was in the gallery of Moroccan paintings that the idea of a tasting menu came to my mind, a meal of colourful dishes created by an inventive chef; some spicy and some a little too rich…..

Then a group of more tranquil watercolours came along, like a sorbet, a reflective interlude between courses….

It was a feast that took some time to digest.



A sleeping Arab

Louvre, Paris, until 23rd July, then Metropolitan Museum, New York, 17th September – 6th January (some of the largest works will not travel)


delacroix museum

Another tranquil place to contemplate Delacroix is the house in Saint Germain where he worked and lived until his death in 1863. It’s an outpost of the Louvre, and provides an insight on the painter’s life; the high window flooded his studio with natural light.


Delacroix’s house




Napoleon the Strategist.

This exhibition at the Musée de l’Armée followed Napoleon’s career.

When I studied Art History at school, my teacher quoted a definition of genius as “an infinite capacity for taking pains”. Napoleon Bonaparte had a phenomenal appetite for preparation, not unlike the chief executive of a 21st century business: recruiting talented staff; researching his enemies and gathering intelligence; supervising every aspect of the organisation and structure of his army, and the French state.

Among the maps and relics, a series of interactive games challenged you to take the same decisions that faced Napoleon:

As you set out on your rise to power, which generals do you choose to have around you, based on their strengths and weaknesses of character?


I tried my luck at the Battle of Ulm….

I was faced with five multiple-choice questions: should I support the general on my flank, who is in danger of being surrounded? Attack the enemy in the centre, from the cover of a forest? Be cautious, and consolidate my position on the road to Vienna?

….and won, with a score of 5/5


It’s a poor photo I know, but I want it on the record that I could have won the Battle of Ulm!



By the time he faced Wellington and his allies at Waterloo, Napoleon was exhausted and unwell, and beginning to accept that waging war is a younger man’s game. The battle ended badly for him, but arguably not as badly as for François-Antoine Fauveau, a young junior officer of Carabiniers-à-Cheval who had enlisted a month before the battle, and whose breastplate still testifies to the devastating effect of the cannonball that struck him.



The cuirass is engraved with the name of the officer who wore it on June 6th, 1815



With the final exhibit, you come close to the physical presence of the man behind the cult, to the clothes that defined the Napoleon Bonaparte of legend: his unadorned riding coat and and one of his hats, the habitual dress that marked him out among the colour and finery of his Grande Armée.



Napoleon’s coat and hat, and a pistol looted from his baggage train

Until 22nd July at La Musée de l’Armée

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