Santa Barbara has recently added another star to its list of celebrity residents — an easel-sized oil painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), one of the most revered French painters in the history of art.
The canvas, which features the subject of “The Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius,” recently surfaced in a Santa Barbara private collection, and after a few years of scholarly and technical examination was authenticated by Eik Kahng, Santa Barbara Museum of Art assistant director and chief curator.
It will debut in the museum’s fall exhibition “Delacroix and the Matter of Finish,” from Oct. 27 through Jan. 26, and will be published for the first time in the accompanying catalog.
Just how did this work get overlooked for more than a century? The lack of signature on the painting is not uncommon among works by Delacroix. The artist often retained cherished paintings in his studio, keeping them for future reference or to give to friends as gifts.
Experts say the composition — that of philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius on his deathbed, commending his son, Commodus, to his most faithful officers and supporters — is absolutely by Delacroix, who painted a monumental, nearly life-size version for the Salon of 1845, now hanging at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France.
In recent years, Delacroix has probably received most notoriety for his Orientalist pictures — such as “Collision of Arab Horsemen” (1843-44) and “The Fanatics of Tangier” (1857), both featured in SBMA’s exhibition. The subjects from his Moroccan travels have been of great interest to post-colonial scholars. These works, with their bold brushwork and exotic subject matter, also fit more easily into the Romantic style for which Delacroix is best known. Yet the artist was also drawn to highly dramatic moments in Greek and Roman history, and frequently refers to the writings of the stoic philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius in his personal diary.
When Kahng finally saw the work in a private collection in Santa Barbara, she initially assumed it was another preparatory sketch for the monumental version in Lyon.
“But as I studied the painting at length, it became clear that this was not a study so much as a variation that subtly reinterprets the psychology of its subject matter. The relative degree of finish within the painting derives … from Delacroix’s wish to simplify the emotional dynamics in concentrating on just four of the figures rather than all nine… [and] the diffused light of the Santa Barbara variant is quite distinct from the more theatrically lit prime version,” noted Kahng.
In addition to recognizing Delacroix’s hand in the new found Santa Barbara painting, Kahng also sought to find the link between Delacroix and the dramatic subject depicted, for which, curiously, there existed no immediate visual precedent.
Through the exhibition and catalog, Kahng hopes to open discussion on the attribution problems that have plagued Delacroix studies, particularly given the artist’s reliance on students as collaborators. Some of these students made copies of Delacroix’s work. The purpose of those copies isn’t known but art experts point to an enormous gulf in technical skill distinguishing these small canvases from the works known to be by Delacroix.
As Kahng asserts in her essay, “Precisely because Delacroix’s touch is so difficult to imitate … paintings like the Santa Barbara variant cannot possibly be anything but authentic inventions by Delacroix. The chromatic complexity, psychological nuance, and bravura brushwork are absolutely beyond the means of Delacroix’s best students.”
Santa Barbara Museum of Art officials say the show with this newly authenticated work from a Santa Barbara private collection together with approximately 30 other paintings and 18 works on paper, the first to take on the challenge of recognizing the hand of the master and to invite museum-goers to do the same.