Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 29, 2016
Eik Kahng, ed. Delacroix and the Matter of Finish Exh. cat. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2013. 168 pp.; 130 color ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780300199444)
Exhibition schedule: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, October 27, 2013–January 26, 2014; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, February 23–May 18, 2014

In 1998, French museums celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of Eugène Delacroix by staging a diverse, exciting series of exhibitions of his work. One of the smallest shows centered on a single painting, the monumental Battle of Taillebourg, made for the Galeries historique de Versailles in 1837 and now housed in the museum at the Château de Versailles, which hosted the exhibition. Accompanied by a modest but excellent catalogue, the show examined the painting and its preparatory drawings, along with a handful of lithographs, sculptures, and several other battle paintings. Other museums have since followed suit, adopting this exhibitory strategy for Delacroix’s paintings, including the Musée national Eugène Delacroix with Medea (1838) in 2001; the Musée du Louvre with Barque of Dante (1822) in 2004; the Oskar Reinhart Collection with Tasso in the Madhouse (1839) in 2008; and, in 2013, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art with The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius (n.d.).

The latter exhibition provided the occasion for the publication of Delacroix and the Matter of Finish. Although the title of the book makes no reference to The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, the painting is unmistakably the impetus behind the show, as Larry J. Feineberg’s foreword makes clear. The “major history painting” (6) acclaimed by Feineberg is not the large canvas that was exhibited at the Salon of 1845 and is now conserved at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Instead, the picture that inspired Delacroix and the Matter of Finish is a much smaller variant that came to light in 2009 and is now part of the Van Asch van Wyck Trust (cat. no. 11). As chief curator Eik Kahng explains, one of the aims of the exhibition and its catalogue is to build a case for the authenticity of this painting (36).

Beautifully illustrated in a large, hardbound volume, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish is much more lavish than its precursors from the above-mentioned French and Swiss exhibitions. Indeed, one of the book’s great assets is the section of color plates, where full-page images are printed on a gray background that marvelously enhances their tonalities. This section is also useful for its reproductions of lesser-known paintings by Delacroix and his students, such as the artist’s small but splendid Entombment (1848; cat. no. 13) and copies of Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824) by Louis de Planet and Pierre Andrieu (cat. nos. 25 and 26). Along with the plates, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish includes three substantial essays, a catalogue of the objects in the exhibition, and a timeline of the genesis and history of The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius and its subsequent variants. Unlike the earlier exhibitions, which included many preparatory drawings as well as their attendant Salon pictures, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish looks not only at the genesis of the painting but at broader questions of authorship, pedagogy, and inheritance.

In her essay on The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, Kahng addresses the first of these larger themes. She begins with a much needed analysis of the sources and iconography of the Lyon painting, which has received scant attention in the scholarly literature on Delacroix. Locating it as the heir to an earlier tradition of history painting, she persuasively argues that it is an exemplum virtutis, much like the moralizing work of Jacques-Louis David and his students. Less convincingly, she connects the picture to Delacroix’s other large-scale Salon painting of 1845, The Sultan of Morocco and His Entourage. Kahng contends that Delacroix used the same iconographical source for both pictures: illustrations by Moreau le Jeune from a biography of Marcus Aurelius. Yet there is no evidence that Delacroix owned or consulted this book. Kahng rightly emphasizes Delacroix’s broader fascination with leadership and its challenges, however, as these issues are resonant in The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, The Sultan of Morocco, and several other pictures from this era, including the Salon paintings Moroccan Chieftain Receiving Tribute (1838) and The Justice of Trajan (1840).

Moving from the painting’s subject to its facture, Kahng tackles the issue that provided the main impetus for this volume: the attribution of the newly discovered painting to Delacroix. The challenges of attribution and the role of connoisseurship figure heavily here. While the technical evidence provided by Kahng is persuasive (particularly with regard to paint application and pentimenti), she devotes too much time to criticizing the assessments of the late Lee Johnson, who, until his death in 2006, was the leading scholar and connoisseur of Delacroix’s work. More attention should be paid to critical questions about the Van Asch van Wyck variant and a related piece, a small copy (now in the John S. Newberry collection) that Johnson attributed to one of Delacroix’s students. The problem is not simply that these paintings lack Johnson’s imprimatur, but that they lack documentation by anyone—including the cataloguers of Delacroix’s posthumous sale, Alfred Robaut (the author of the first catalogue raisonné), Delacroix’s biographers, and Delacroix himself, in his Journal, notebooks, and voluminous correspondence. The apparent absence of documentation does not mean that the paintings should be dismissed, but it is information to be taken seriously, especially because Delacroix has one of the better-documented oeuvres in the history of art. Nevertheless, Kahng’s discussion of connoisseurship and stylistic analysis ought to generate lively debate among connoisseurs, collectors, curators, and scholars. Her work on this subject also provides an important reminder that Delacroix’s practice of making copies and variants of his own pictures deserves deeper, more systematic evaluation.

In the essay “Delacroix’s Pedagogical Desire,” Marc Gotlieb uses the questions of attribution surrounding the Newberry picture as a springboard into a discussion of Delacroix’s ambitions as a teacher. Gotlieb shows that the artist aspired to dismantle traditional teaching practices in which the master passed down his methods to a group of disciples who closely imitated him, as was the case with both David and Delacroix’s rival Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Instead of following this model, Delacroix argued that students had to be liberated by their own teachers from the deadening effect of such pedagogy; somewhat perversely, he believed that this freedom could be attained by copying the works of the ancients and Old Masters. In relation to this last point, Gotlieb explores Delacroix’s enthusiasm and support for the drawing manuals written by his lover, the painter Marie-Elisabeth Boulanger Cavé, who popularized a method based on tracing and copying from memory. Gotlieb closes with a brief discussion of Delacroix’s fraught relations with his apprentices and his failure—or refusal—to leave a legacy as a teacher. Though the essay has little to do with The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, Gotlieb’s insightful analysis sheds light on an important new area of inquiry in Delacroix studies, one that will contribute significantly to our consideration of the problems of attribution raised by Kahng’s essay.

Michèle Hannoosh returns our attention to The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius in the essay “Delacroix and the Ends of Civilization,” in which she brings her formidable expertise on the artist’s Journal and murals to bear on the Lyon painting. Hannoosh argues that The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius should be understood as part of Delacroix’s ongoing reflection on the fragile, precarious nature of civilization vis-à-vis the ever-present threat of barbarism and chaos. As she demonstrates, the Lyon painting extends a lifelong exploration of this theme, which begins with the artist’s earliest Salon pictures and continues in his later writings, history paintings, and major mural projects, most notably for the libraries in the Palais du Luxembourg and the Palais Bourbon. Hannoosh’s analysis underscores the continuity of Delacroix’s varied undertakings during the latter half of his career, and she reveals the important role, previously overlooked, that The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius played in the artist’s sustained engagement with the theme she identifies. Her discussion of Marcus Aurelius’s failure to transmit his legacy of democracy and fair governance to his son and heir, Commodus, dovetails with Gotlieb’s analysis of Delacroix’s own inability to pass on his teachings to another generation of artists.

The themes and questions pursued by the authors in this catalogue bring an interesting range of perspectives to the broader subject of connoisseurship. Traditionally, this arena has been treated as a purely visual realm, where the expert eye distinguishes nuances of technique and paint application that reveal the true identity of the painting’s maker. While such skills (and the training required to develop them) have fallen out of fashion, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish reminds us that they still have an important place in art history. Furthermore, just as connoisseurship now routinely embraces technological and scientific examinations (paint chip analysis, infrared reflectography, and the like), the essays in this volume demonstrate that this approach can also be usefully informed by wide-ranging art-historical studies. With its consideration of such issues as attribution, connoisseurship, seriality, pedagogy, and representations of leadership and civilization, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish offers thought-provoking observations to those who work on these subjects—no matter what the field of inquiry—and suggests new avenues of investigation for Delacroix’s work.

Jennifer W. Olmsted
Associate Professor, James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History, Wayne State University