H. 0.245 m; W. 0.325 m
Among the subjects painted by Delacroix for the Chapelle des Saints-Anges (the Chapel of the Guardian Angels) at the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is without doubt one of his most powerful compositions. The scheme for the chapel murals - also including Heliodorus Driven from the Temple, and St Michael Defeating the Devil - presents three Biblical scenes featuring angels as warrior-like messengers of the redeeming power of God. At first glance, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (as related in Genesis: 32) celebrates the beauty of Nature, with its huge trees and twisted trunks. But its chief subject remains the strange pair of wrestlers, their struggle a symbol of Man’s spiritual quest, during which Jacob is injured but not defeated. In this late work, finished in 1861, Delacroix embarks on his own, ultimate aesthetic quest.
Delacroix received the commission to decorate a chapel in the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris by decree of the Préfecture de Seine, on April 28, 1848, issued by the Fine Arts division and its director, Antoine Varcolliers. Unexpectedly, he changed the original theme to the Guardian Angels, noting in his diary that the decision was taken "on their very Feast Day," October 2, 1849. Interrupted by other more urgent projects - notably the central section of the ceiling in the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre (1850-51), the paintings for Paris City Hall (1852-54) and the great retrospective of his work for the Universal Exhibition of 1855 - and further complicated by the technical difficulty of the work, the decorations for the chapel (the first on the right entering through the West door) were finally inaugurated on July 31, 1861, two years before the artist’s death.
The study for Jacob Wrestling with the Angel in the Musée Delacroix was probably executed in 1850, when the painter recorded that he was at work on "sketches for Saint Sulpice, to be submitted to the Préfecture" (Journal, February 27, 1850). Other preparatory studies are scattered in several different collections, including the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA), where the combatants are reversed, to the right of the picture; an ink transfer by Delacroix, now in the Musée Delacroix, shows the same arrangement. Here, Jacob’s frontal attack, with his knee raised high, shows his absolute courage and determination: the definitive composition retains the same attacking posture. The artist suggests the figures’ almost dance-like movement, using light, rapid pencil strokes: the lightly-sketched angel fends off the attack and wounds Jacob in the thigh. But this figure shows none of the serene, implacable equilibrium embodied by the nameless angel in the finished painting on the chapel wall, his wings held firmly upright after the long night’s struggle.
Delacroix was maybe inspired by Lamartine’s Poetical Meditations, which describe the two beings entwined like the knotted trunks of the trees looming over them...
"In immense silence,
They measure themselves awhile;
Each suddenly throws himself upon the other;
Transported, gripped alike,
Their threatening arms do bend,
Pressed flank to flank;
Like a great, uprooting oak,
Their trunk leans o’er and sways
Above their entangled knees."
The official opening of the chapel lasted a week, from July 31 to August 6, 1861, but not all of the invited guests responded. Delacroix’s artist friends came, however, prompting him to observe: "I was assured on all sides that I was not yet dead." (Correspondance générale, Joubin, 1935, IV, p.269-270). Articles of high praise by Théophile Thoré and Charles Baudelaire were countered by critical reviews from Emile Galichon or Louis Vitet. "This is a great religious subject," wrote Barrès, "the fury of the brave figure diving to wrestle with his ideal is a powerful exaltation of the human soul in all its mystery." It should be noted that Delacroix invariably favored scenes highlighting trials of Faith, evoking his own religious skepticism (numerous images of Christ on the Cross, Christ at the Column, and the Pilgrims at Emmaus; several versions of Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret). At the end of his life, this spiritual anguish, rooted in his agnostic youth, naturally led him to the celebrated but dark, mysterious episode of Jacob’s struggle with the Angel.
Throughout his life, Delacroix engaged in the artist’s solitary struggle, constantly measuring and challenging his own creative powers, and - why not? - pitting himself against God the Creator, in the person of the Angel. Like Jacob on the night before crossing the ford over the Jabboq river, he is alone. Like the son of Isaac, Delacroix’s struggle is a form of exaltation: "In truth, painting taunts and torments me in a thousand ways, like the most demanding of mistresses," as he confided in his journal on January 1, 1861, in the midst of work on the chapel at Saint Sulpice. "For four months, I have scurried away at first light, rushing to continue this enchanting work, as if at the feet of the most beloved mistress; things that seemed - at a distance - to be the easiest to overcome in fact present appalling, interminable difficulties. How is it, then, that instead of casting me down, this eternal combat uplifts me; not discouraging, but consoling me [...]?"
Maurice Sérullaz, Delacroix, Peintures murales, Paris:Ed. du Temps, 1963.
Joyce C. Polistena, Nouvelles sources pour le cycle des peintures murales de Delacroix à Saint-Sulpice, Bulletin de la Société des Amis du musée de Delacroix, 2009, n° 7, p.25-38.