Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863),
The Entombment (after Peter Paul Rubens)
oil on canvas, 28 x 21 in.; 71.12 x 53.34 cm
Museum purchase, 1958.3
Delacroix was raised in a bourgeois family and received the benefits of education in classical and contemporary literature. Like Théodore Géricault, he studied under Pierre Narcisse Guérin, a former pupil of Jacques-Louis David. Delacroix studied the Old Masters intently, copying the paintings in the Louvre.
Desiring to emulate the dramatic power, brilliant tones, and vigorous drawing of Rubens, Delacroix executed thirty-two known oil copies of works by the Baroque master. While few of Delacroix's copies relied solely on engravings, most were based on paintings he had actually seen. The Entombment is copied after a large Rubens altarpiece of about 1618 in the church of Saint-Géry in Cambrai. Although it is conceivable that Delacroix saw the original in situ, it is more likely that he viewed it at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1836, when it was transferred there for conservation.
The Entombment reflects the narrative power that Delacroix admired in the works of Rubens. Bathed in light, the naked, dead Christ lies sprawled on a block of stone before the entrance to the cave that will serve as his sepulcher. Delacroix's treatment of Christ's anguished expression and limp limbs proclaims the pathos of the scene. Surrounding Christ are grief-stricken onlookers: Saint John struggles to support Christ's torso, Mary Magdalene kneels at his feet and gazes upon his body, and Mary, his mother, looks up to heaven, at once imploring divine mercy and foreshadowing the resurrection. The group of figures is organized in a Baroque compositional pattern: a diagonal thrust into the picture following the axis of Christ's body and then an abrupt change of direction followed by a second diagonal composed of figures receding into the distance.
Delacroix's painterly and sensuous approach to color was his special contribution to the history of art. A diplomatic mission to Algiers and Morocco in 1832 expanded his awareness of the dazzling qualities of color under the brilliant Mediterranean sun. Perhaps influenced by chemist Eugéne Chevreul's recently published color theories, Delacroix independently noted that the complement of a color, not a value of black, was the actual hue of its shadow. The incorporation of this observation into his painting technique led him to an even fresher, more vibrant, and sumptuous coloration, which was praised by critics and was of supreme importance to his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist successors.