Oil on canvas
H. 0.323 m; W. 0.248 m
These two portraits - Thales Fielding by Delacroix and Eugène Delacroix by Thales Fielding, each painted circa 1824-1825 - are a moving testimony to the importance of the artists’ mutual friendship. The pictures are not self-portraits (a genre Delacroix abhorred). Each friend posed for the other before the separation imposed by Fielding’s return to England in 1824, after more than three years in Paris.
The English Fielding brothers - the five sons of the painter Theodore Nathan Fielding - settled in Paris one after the other, starting in 1820, encouraged by the Swiss publisher Jean-François d’Ostervald who was looking for landscape artists to work on his lithograph albums of picturesque views. All of the brothers contributed to the collection entitled Excursions sur les côtes et dans les ports de Normandie ("Excursions to the Normandy coast and ports"). The Fieldings also taught lithography and watercolor painting, first in their studio on Place Dauphine and later at no. 20 Rue Jacob. Raymond Soulier studied with them as a beginner, and invited his friend Delacroix. The artist went on to become a close friend of Thales, who suggested he share his studio. Their friendship seems to have reached a peak in 1824: Delacroix’s Journal makes frequent mention of his companion. At the Salon of the same year, Thales exhibited a total of nine works, with other English artists including Bonington, the portrait painter Lawrence, and the landscape painter John Constable. Thales’s works included a small watercolor of Macbeth Meeting the Witches on the Heath (no. 647), a composition developed with Delacroix, which was singled out for praise by Stendhal.
Back in England, in October 1824, Thales pursued a less brilliant artistic career than his friend in France, although his landscapes and literary subjects (rather than portraits) featured regularly at the exhibitions of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours (to which he was elected in 1829) and the British Institution. He ended his career as a professor at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, on a comfortable annual salary. Few of his works have been traced today, although some of his watercolors and prints are in the collections of the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester and the Paul Mellon Center for British Art at Yale University.
Delacroix kept his portrait of Thales Fielding throughout his life in Paris, at successive addresses - a testimony to their lasting friendship. The painting was acquired by Achille Piron at the posthumous sale of his collection. Delacroix’s portrait shows the young British artist in an amiable light, with a bright, alert expression perfectly captured in the master’s quick, lively brushwork. Purchased for the Delacroix studio on Rue de Furstenberg in 2009, the canvas fittingly joins another portrait, thought to be that of Thales’s brother Newton, on display at the museum.
Writing from his studio on Rue Jacob, to which he had recently moved, Delacroix told his friend Soulier of his sorrow at the departure of "the good Thales" (letter to Soulier, October 11, 1824). We know that Delacroix set great store by friendship, especially when his friends shared his passion for art and painting. With Fielding, he worked on his watercolor technique in particular, learning to surpass the straightforward uses of the medium and incorporate gouache highlights, scraping, and the use of rubbers and varnish. The following year, he accepted his friend’s invitation to visit London - like Géricault before him - for a three-month period from May to August 1825. The visit fuelled his passion for English literature and painting, a recurrent source of inspiration throughout his artistic life. He attended several performances of Shakespeare plays (Othello, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, with the celebrated actor Edmund Kean in the title role). Delacroix paid visits to the famous portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence, and the painters David Wilkie and William Etty. He met all the Fielding brothers again, of course, together with Bonington, his second dear English friend, who had taken Thales’s place at the Paris studio, and with whom he went on drawing expeditions during his London stay.
André Joubin, Correspondance générale d’Eugène Delacroix, Paris, 1935, vol.1
Patrick Noon, in Crossing the Channel, British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism, exhibition catalog, London, Tate Britain, 2003, p.50, n° 1 and 2, repr.
Christophe Leribault, Deux portraits d’amitié réunis,Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot, May 8, 2009, pp 180-181, repr.