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Delacroix’s Cats

Following its record-breaking debut at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the blockbuster Delacroix exhibit has opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While not all of the works could travel, as some are intrinsic to the Louvre, the big cats made the trip to the city. For the Delacroix exhibit poster, the Met has selected Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, the artist’s great and surprising painting from 1830, as the signature and defining work of the exhibition.

Eugène Delacroix, (French, 1798–1863). Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother (Study of Two Tigers), 1830. Oil on canvas, 52 x 76.6 in. (130 x 195 cm). Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), known as the leading Romantic painter of his era, loved cats. His many notebooks show preparatory sketches of lions, tigers, and several charming domestic cats. The big cats, for the most part, made it into big paintings. At 52 x 76.6 in. (130 x 195 cm), Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830, is astonishingly large for an animal painting of his time, a size normally devoted to a history painting. His most famous work, La Liberté guidant le peuple, dates from the same year. 

When Young Tiger was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1831, critics could hardly get over it. Why did Delacroix feel so moved to paint such a scene?

“This unusual artist has never painted a man who looks like a man in the way his tiger looks like a tiger.”

In the 1820s, the artist made several visits to the Jardin des Plantes and Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. He shared how he felt in his notebook:

"Extraordinary animals! … I had a feeling of happiness as soon as I entered the place and the further I went the stronger it grew. I felt my whole being rise above commonplaces and trivialities and the petty worries of my daily life. What an immense variety of animals and species of different shapes and functions! At every turn, I saw what we call deformity side by side with what seems to us to be beauty and grace of form… The tigers, the panthers, the jaguars, the lions, etc. Why is it that these things have stirred me so much? Can it be because I have gone outside the everyday thoughts that are my world; away from the street that is my entire universe? How necessary it is to give oneself a shake from time to time, to stick one’s head out of doors and try to read from the book of life that has nothing in common with cities and the works of man. No doubt about it, this excursion has done me good and has made me feel better and calmer.” (L. Norton, trans., The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, London, 1995, pp. 57-58)

While an embrace of wild nature and emotions are characteristic of the Romantic movement, there’s something almost Zen-like in Delacroix’s reaction. Delacroix says the big cats “made me feel better and calmer.” By focusing on his observation of the animals, leisurely at one moment but able to strike swiftly into action in the next, the painter could form an identification of sorts.



Delacroix at the Met Fifth Avenue

One critic noted of the Young Tiger painting, quoted on the exhibit label: “This unusual artist has never painted a man who looks like a man in the way his tiger looks like a tiger.” On display at the Met are several sketches of big cats, including ones in the nearby exhibition, Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugene Delacroix. The artist returned to painting tigers in later years.

Delacroix extended his big cat devotion to lions. On display are sketches and a fragment of The Lion Hunt, part of a series of three large paintings inspired by Peter Paul Rubens' The Lion Hunt, c. 1621, and the artist’s trip to Morocco, Algeria, and Spain in 1832. He painted these works toward the end of life, throwing himself into expressing the lions with a youthful vivacity. Painting big cats gave the artist inner calm and a sense of inner strength. 

Entrance to the exhibition. Portrait d'Eugène Delacroix 1842, first known photograph of Delacroix by his cousin Léon Riesener. The Met Fifth Avenue.

Delacroix includes more than 150 paintings, drawings, and notebooks showing the full range of his preoccupations and subject matter, all told in chronological order. The exhibit continues at the Met Fifth Avenue through January 6, 2019. The Met Store also offers images of the tigers on a scarf, a tote, and postcards, and a tiger motif on bangles.

Exhibit images by Walking Off the Big Apple from September 16, 2018.

Met Museum website.

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