Eugene Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante is an oil on canvas work completed in 1822. This huge painting is also called Dante and Virgil in Hell. The picture is based on Canto VIII of the Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic magnum opus, The Divine Comedy. The poem is an allegory about Dante’s voyage to Hell with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. 

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The Barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix 1822_ ©

According to the poem, Hell comprises nine concentric rings of agony on Earth. Each circle represents a different sin and the location where those who have committed that sin without repenting will be punished. Sinners in each ring are penalised for their misdeeds. Each sinner’s major sin causes them to be wretched for eternity. These rings signify a progressive rise in evil, which reaches its pinnacle at the centre of the world, where Satan is confined.

The painting, regarded as the artist’s first significant work, illustrates the pivotal shift from neoclassicism to Romanticism.

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The map of hell by Sandro Botticelli 1485_ ©

Through this artwork, Delacroix weaves an intriguing story together. The literary protagonist of the same Italian poet’s fourteenth-century Divine Commedia, the Pilgrim Dante, is engaged in a game of adventurism. His senses are being overloaded. When the lashing of the waves and the bodies in the water crashing with the boat buffeted him, his adrenalin levels continued to soar. His shouts overwhelm away his ability to think. The surrounding roaring storm intensifies, similar to the confined tiger in rage. Dante responds, and his animalistic instincts of terror and flight take over. There is no way out from within this little sailboat surfing the liquid tumult. Panic might strike. The River Styx represents the location for Dante’s inner battle, as the Pilgrim, his Pagan tutor Virgil, and Phlegiàs the Oarsman travel the perilous waters en route to the City of Dis. This version, however, is not a direct translation of the scenario from Inferno VIII but incorporates pieces from the same and other cantos.

The artist was attempting to illustrate the endless struggle of human beings. It is the conflict between the savage mind and the faculties that distinguish people from animals. He may want us to experience these two opposed emotional states amid a conflict where reason and survival instinct collide. Ingeniously presenting contrasts like energy versus cohesion and fear versus tranquilly are used to achieve this. These traits manifest as movement, motion, and, without wanting complete anarchy, the stabilising effects of stability. As a result, even a famous character like Dante, who is always calm and measured, is vulnerable to the disruptive behaviour of the human experience.

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The Barque of Dante-detail of Dante Alighieri_ ©

Delacroix seeks to capture our emotions at every step between the two locations of departure and arrival. In the distance, we can see the City of Dis, the journey’s end, engulfed in hellish flames to the northwest of our position. A course change is necessary, resulting in an abrupt left turn for the vessel. The boat’s thrust against the stream is tremendous. The momentum of the trip builds to a climax as though divine providence is directing the travellers into that blazing furnace.

We can feel the Pilgrim’s mounting fear as we gaze at this enormous dramatic spectacle. The secret to this emotional significance is the painting’s vitality and Delacroix’s pervasive sense of motion. As the pilgrimage progresses near the burning station of Dis, the Pilgrim’s anxiety intensifies. His position is precarious.

Delacroix expertly combines a variety of distinct triangle forms that discreetly direct our gaze from one place to another quickly. He wants us to experience bewilderment, unrest, and gloom. He takes pleasure in our anguish. The optics are artistically assertive: drawn diagonally, linking the picture planes from right to left, boosting our peripheral vision and producing an exaggerated broadening impact. The visual pace is unstoppable. The atmospheric factors captivate us and heighten our perception of velocity. The wind becomes wilder, stalking beyond the window like a ravenous beast. From the blazing fire in the front to Dante himself, forms tilt rightward in sync with the wind.

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Integration of multiple sharp triangular shapes subtly moving our eyes from one point to another_ ©

We are captivated by the ivory hues in the front that create the pinnacle of those waves, responding to the conflict between air and water and producing a sensation of imbalance as the choppy waves drive Dante upward and downward like a musical note. It is sufficient to make us feel nauseated and worried. We can sense the hero’s growing worry about relocation as he oscillates back and forth. Nevertheless, nothing is absolute. Even when the incipient motion develops, the Stoic has time to restore his emotional balance.

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The Barque of Dante-detail of desperate souls_ ©

Dante needs an emotional trigger at that precise moment when the reality of danger sinks in to combat the adrenaline rush overpowering his cognitive abilities. Delacroix understands his desire for an anchor and stability. Dante desires turmoil but not for nature’s powers to overwhelm us. As a result, he provides equilibrium, cohesion and security, all of which are epitomized in the Pagan guide Virgil. The Pagan guide is unaffected by the events occurring around him, being well-versed in the dynamics of Hell. He softly reaches out an arm, his hand slightly twisted and open, inviting Dante to enjoy his protection. However, in Dante’s growing terror, he has yet to connect.

The darkening of the chiaroscuro pulls Virgil back, putting more space among us and encouraging us to relax. His rectangular form, equidistant in the middle, is pleasing. It nurtures us and emanates calm. The Pilgrim is also aware of it, though he has not yet entirely come to terms with it. Yet Virgil is endowed with divine vision, and he, like the spider building the damaged web, is patient. Dante’s advice will provide physical security, but the objective is to discover inner stability within ourselves. Virgil understands that patience is the key to success and that faith makes this possible.

The Barque of Dante-detail of desperate souls_ ©
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The Barque of Dante-detail of Phlegyas_ ©

Delacroix aimed to create something less literal yet more realistic with this artwork. He wants to increase awareness of human weakness, which is a wonderfully romantic idea. A range of characteristics of the human condition exists in us, and everyone is prone to them, even those thought to be the most resilient, such as the Stoic Dante. This painting might be perceived as a metaphor for life. The dark canvas is interrupted by pockets of brightness from the people we surround ourselves with. We are all drifting aimlessly between hope and despair, surrounded by possible dangers (the perpetual burning of Dis in the background).

We are each individually travelling on our paths (movement), navigating the perilous turbulence of our surroundings (motion), and seeking security and reassurances that everything will turn out well (stability). We look for a saviour, yet the truth is always there for us to find. Nonetheless, it is a challenging and exhausting road.


jonathan5485. (2011, September 6). The barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix. my daily art display. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from

Articonog. (2022, February 2). The barque of Dante by Eugène Delacroix. ArtIconog. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from

Cultural. (2022, February 19). Eugène Delacroix’s the barque of Dante: The maladaptive stoic. THE CULTURAL AFICIONADO. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from


Manisha Puri is an architectural designer by qualification with a creative personality. She enjoys painting and understanding art history and mythology. She has a keen sense of beauty in nature, people, and art. She wants to inspire others as well as be inspired by others.