(b. 1798, Charenton-Saint-Maurice, d. 1863, Paris)

Decoration of the west wall

Oil and virgin wax on plaster
Salon du Roi, Palais Bourbon, Paris

The picture shows the Justice (260 x 1100 cm), the Mediterranean (300 x 118 cm) and the Ocean (300 x 118 cm).

By a decree dated 31 August, 1833, Delacroix was commissioned to undertake his first state decoration, that of the Salon du Roi or Throne Room of the Palais Bourbon. This was the first of a succession of major commissions, on which Delacroix continued to lavish his talents until illness intervened. Between 1833 and 1854, Delacroix's monumental compositions spread across the Salon du Roi, the Library of the Palais du Luxembourg, the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre and the Salon de la Paix in the Hotel de Ville.

This was a different matter from even the largest easel paintings. Delacroix had now to exercise his imagination on huge surfaces of very various shape: domes, ceilings, semidomes, friezes, pilasters, and coffering. The essence of decorative painting is unity with the architectural framework that it invests. It was this aspect of the commissions that offered Delacroix the greatest opportunity for experiment and enabled him to give of his best.

Like Michelangelo when he began the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, Delacroix knew nothing about the technique of fresco. So before executing the first commission, Delacroix spent several weeks with his family in the abbaye de Valmont, in Normandy, experimenting with fresco. These experiments enabled him to invent his own technique. Aware of the limitations of distemper, and noting that fresco did not easily adapt to the climate, he decided to paint the walls of the Salon du Roi with oil, to which he added a little colourless wax or encaustic. This allowed him to imitate the mat surface of fresco and protect the colours from the effects of damp; it also made it possible to retouch his work, which the use of distemper would have ruled out. This was the technique that he used for all subsequent decorations.

Throughout 1837, Delacroix worked alone on the Salon du Roi, accepting assistance only for certain ornaments, and in 1838, the public could finally admire the finished work. It comprised four large sections of a coffered ceiling each decorated with a large allegorical figure in classical dress: Justice, Agriculture, Industry and War. In addition, there were four little coffers representing Putti bearing emblems. On the pilasters, he personified the rivers of France and the seas or oceans that they flow into, such as The Garonne and The Mediterranean. A frieze running round the upper wall above the windows and doors echoes these themes, contrasting the evils of war with the virtues of justice, industry and agriculture.