The Crucifixion, after Le Coup de Lance by Peter Paul Rubens
Pen and black ink and grey wash on wove paper
Purchased through the Phyllis and Bertram Geller 1937 Memorial Fund; D.962.109
Peter Paul Rubens’s Christ on the Cross of 1619-20 was one of his most famous paintings. It presents us with a unique insight into his painting style, the operation of his atelier, and his use of antique, medieval, and seventeenth-century history, iconography, and religious writings. There were more than fifty copies of this image made in the form of paintings, drawings, and prints. Although Rubens’s atelier helped to complete the altarpiece, it was still considered to be a prime example of his personal working method. Consequently, it was studied and copied by his countrymen and foreigners from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, and it held a particular fascination for Eugène Delacroix.
That the French artist held Rubens in such high esteem is attested to by the numerous painted and drawn copies made by him after the Flemish master’s originals, and by the large quantity of prints Delacroix owned after his works. Delacroix also wrote extensive descriptions of Rubens’s techniques and paintings in his journal. Like Rubens, Delacroix studied and copied his forerunners but did not produce exact imitations. The nineteenth-century artist’s studies here are highly original adaptations of Rubens’s procedure and technique in producing dramatic compositions. They are, in general, considerably looser, less complete, and more suggestive than the originals. Delacroix’s interest in the past may very well have been fostered by Rubens’s absorption in earlier artists and attention to historical accuracy.
Delacroix’s attraction to Christ on the Cross was not evident until late in the Frenchman’s second journey to the Netherlands in 1850. During his stay in Brussels from July 6 to August 14 of that year, he made several excursions to Antwerp to study Rubens’s works. His journal entry of August 10 contains a detailed analysis of the technique used in the painting. It obviously had a profound effect upon him as he made five drawings, a pastel, and a painting after Christ on the Cross. Several of these drawings were executed directly in front of the painting, while others were done from memory. It is probable that the present sheet was one of those copied directly from the original. The quick, lively, scribble-like application of the pen indicating the major shapes and forms suggests the work of an artist making visual notes in the presence of his subject.
All of Delacroix’s interpretations suggest that he was attempting to focus our attention on Christ and the main figures in the scene. It is impossible to say whether or not Delacroix was concerned about the uneven execution of the figures or the strong possibility that Rubens’s hand is only evident in the painting of the more important ones. In Delacroix’s journal there is no mention of this, but his drawings produced in front of the original emphasize the figures that are generally accepted as those painted by the master.
Rubens’s ideals as set forth in Christ on the Cross were not only decisive for the seventeenth century but clearly also an inspiration for artists of subsequent generations like Delacroix. All of the French artist’s copies after Rubens demonstrate his intense interest in creating dramatic, emotional, and monumental figures. Delacroix, the Rubenist par excellence, translates the seventeenth-century idiom into a nineteenth-century style that is less detailed but more dramatic in its impact.
Last Updated: 1/21/10