EUG`ENE DELACROIX said he was supremely happy - ``p'en'etr'e de bonheur'' - when he watched feeding time at the Paris Zoo. Indelibly dubbed the leader of the French Romantic ``school'' of the first half of the 19th century, this painter's contemporaries described him as wild and feline of feature. It seems certain that he identified with the tigers, lions, and terrified horses he loved to paint. He was truly a Romantic in his relish of the awesome and savage in nature. As the enormous, exhilarating display of his paintings and drawings now at the Zurich Kunsthaus makes abundantly evident, he was a painter of opulent, expressive freedoms. His choice of subject-matter - and the show demonstrates how varied this actually was - underpinned the sheer energy, ferocity and passion of the act of painting or drawing. He didn't always paint lion hunts, or Indian women being savaged to death by tigers, but when he did treat such dramas, it is the relished paint, the rich Venetian color, and the exuberance of composition that generally save them from becoming mere melodramas. What he could carry off successfully by the sheer, felt conviction of his hand is almost incredible .
In his Journal, Delacroix compared Rubens with Carracci. The differences he noted reveal his own preferences and motives: ``Such is the power of the hidden force belonging to artists like Rubens, that the characteristic feeling of the artist dominates everything and compels the attention of the beholder. ... Carracci had great intelligence, great talent, great ability ... but none of the quality that sweeps you off your feet and causes unforgetable emotions.'' It was this quality that Delacroix both possessed and fostered.
The exhibition, in spite of its size, cannot be called definitive: Too many of the artist's ``great'' masterpieces have remained in the Louvre. They did send ``La Barque de Dante,'' but ``The Massacre at Scio,'' ``The Death of Sardanapalus,'' ``The Taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders,'' ``The Shipwreck of Don Juan'' have not left Paris. This is a pity, but it is surprising on the whole how adequate the show seems without them. But Delacroix's is an art that speaks with at least as much potency in smaller, less ``finished'' works and in sketches and preparatory paintings as it does in big display paintings made for the Salon. This is quite stunningly illustrated by the 1845 oil sketch and the vast finished painting of the ``Sultan de Maroc'' receiving the French Ambassador. The large picture is unbelievably dull. It has all the trappings of the official occasion it represents: It has mere size and importance. The tenseness of the moment and the exoticism of the setting is frozen rigid by just the kind of over-particular academicism Delacroix usually avoided like the plague. But the preparatory sketch has the summary boldness of something painted a century later. It is a notation that lacks narrative definition, certainly. But as painting it is unadulterated magic; it surges with a drive that lifts the beholder off his feet.
A drawing after ``The Raft of the Medusa''(1819) by Delacroix's intense predecessor Th'eodore G'ericault, hints the considerable debt he owed this admired painter. It is intriguing to see how, for example, Gericault's theme of the storm-threatened craft filled with beleaguered humanity recurs in Delacroix's work. In this show there is a line of four paintings (1853-54) in which he strives to express the panic of the disciples of Jesus in their tempest-tossed boat while their master lies peacefully asleep ``on a pillow.'' As one might expect, Delacroix (who often used religious themes for his paintings) succeeds in imaginatively expressing the turbulent sea and the distraction of the disciples. More compassion emerges in his remarkable ``Pieta.'' Van Gogh's later copy comes nowhere near Delacroix's original.
Delacroix more often derived his themes from medieval history or from literature - particularly from Shakespeare, Byron and Scott. And his love affair with Morocco is ubiquitous. The classics tempted him at times: Two ferociously conceived versions, early and late, of Medea about the kill her children make for an absorbing study of both the consistencies and the changes in his development.
Two of his portraits show unforgetably how he could bend his brooding imagination in the direction of that genre: one of the inspired, diabolical Paganini, sharp and spectral. The other, lent from Copenhagen, of Georges Sand. She emerges from strong shadows, a beautiful and thought-filled profile above a dark dress, her arms large across the foot of the canvas, classical in proportion, yet sensitive and feminine. It is a painting of such imaginative penetration that one wonders that anyone might seriously have thought, as they were starting to at that period, that photography could challenge painting in the art of portraiture. The only pity is that the accompanying portrait of Chopin, which is its intended pair, was not lent to the show by the Louvre.
At the Kunsthaus, Zurich to Aug. 23. At the St"adtische Galerie im St"adelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Sept. 24 to Jan. 10, 1988.