Art history as a discipline often seems static, frozen. We think of it in terms of eras and with those eras come artists’ names – from the Renaissance we have Michelangelo and da Vinci and, from Impressionism, Monet. There is a canon, and that canon seems inviolable, codified in textbooks and lecture halls.
But that’s not exactly how it works. For instance, there is a near-constant revision in the leading interpretation of famous pieces, even ones that have been around for centuries. Take “The Arnolfini Wedding” – or, as it’s now called, “The Arnolfini Portrait.” Or the attribution of the works of the famous “Master of Flémalle,” the creator of so many iconic northern European works of the Renaissance, to Robert Campin, 500 years after his death. Or – for an example closer to home – consider an obscure work by Eugène Delacroix, on long-term loan to the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute as of Feb. 9.
There are a couple intriguing things about this work, the first of which is embedded in that last sentence. It is a little-known work done by one of the best-known artists of the Romantic era – Delacroix. The painting, which scholars have tentatively titled “The Martyrdrom of Saint Sulpicius” and roughly dated to 1847-1850, depicts a man on his knees with arms outstretched, looking up. In the sky, angels spill over onto the clouds and an otherworldly light drenches the man’s face and tunic. Directly behind him, a horse rears up, its rider cast in an ominous shadow. A crowd wields weapons, rendered in sharp, chaotic diagonals. It seems a picture of an instant in time, suspended by that ethereal light.
In this way the painting is not unusual; one can point to hundreds of other depictions of martyrdom or religious ecstasy that vary little from this theme. What is unusual is that “The Martyrdom” is not a finished work, but a study for one – and one that doesn’t seem to actually exist. There are, of course, theories. The most likely at the moment is that this is a preparatory work for Delacroix’s final commission, a set of murals for the Chapel of Holy Angels in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris.
While there is no representation of St. Sulpicius in the Chapel of Holy Angels, according to the New York Times, a review of Delacroix’s journals from the time indicate that the subject matter of the murals was revised multiple times between its commission and its execution. It’s possible that the martyrdom of St. Sulpicius was once an option that was eventually discarded. The work is consistent, also, with Delacroix’s interests at the time. In writings from the 1840s and 1850s, Delacroix expressed an admiration for the painter Peter Paul Rubens. Indeed, the shadowed rider and horse behind the kneeling figure is strikingly similar to some of the early works of Rubens.
Whether or not the work is a preparatory sketch for the murals of the Chapel of Holy Angels, “The Martyrdom of Saint Sulpicius” is fascinating in its own right. We often see works after they’ve been finished; these sometimes bear little trace of the artistic process. This isn’t exactly the case with a painter like Delacroix, who favored broad, expressive brushstrokes over carefully blended, hyperrealistic pictures. But a sketch, with its hastily blocked-in colors – the torso of the rider a single mass of shadow, the facial features of the kneeling figure little more than three dabs of darker paint – reveals a lot about what the artist thought important to convey to a viewer.
In this case, we see the preeminence of light. Streaming into the scene from the top left corner, this light casts a deep shadow under the jaw of the kneeling man – this is where the eye goes first. His outstretched arms seem a direct response to the glow. (The sleeve of his tunic, rendered in a single quick stroke, looks literally to be a continuation of a ray.) Even the blades and trumpets of the riotous crowd behind him seems to emphasize the light by opposing it, the angles between them almost perfectly perpendicular.
Had this piece made it onto the walls of Saint-Sulpice, no doubt it would have been spectacular. One has to be grateful, though, for at least the existence of a sketch. It may not be grand in scale, nor groundbreaking in subject. But it is significant in its illumination of the artistic process of one of the premier painters of the 19th century. Beyond that, its reemergence after decades tucked away in a private collection, has reenergized a discipline typically thought static, revised a history previously thought whole and complete.