Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Ovid among the Scythians

Eugène Delacroix (French, Charenton-Saint-Maurice 1798–1863 Paris)
Oil on paper, laid down on wood
12 5/8 x 19 3/4 in. (32.1 x 50.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Wrightsman Fund, in honor of Philippe de Montebello, 2008
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 801
This is the final work Delacroix devoted to a theme that had first attracted him in 1835. It depicts the exiled poet Ovid, who in A.D. 8 was banished from Rome to the coast of the Black Sea, at present-day Constantsa, Romania. He was treated with kindness by the Scythians, who are shown feeding him and expressing mare’s milk for him to drink. This painting reprises a larger composition that Delacroix exhibited at the Salon of 1859 (now National Gallery, London). Reviews were mixed, but its admirers included Edgar Degas and the critic Charles Baudelaire, who wrote "The mind sinks into it with a slow and appreciative rapture…" 
In A.D. 8 the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 B.C.–A.D. 17/18), author of Metamorphoses, was banished from Rome for life by Emperor Augustus and sent to the coast of the Black Sea, at Tomis or Tomi, present-day Constantsa, Romania. The reason behind the punishment is unknown. Ovid recounted his exile in Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Delacroix’s first treatment of this subject—the artist alone, misunderstood, and unappreciated—was an oil sketch (whereabouts unknown), based on which his assistant Louis de Planet (1814–1875) completed the pendentive painting in the cupola devoted to the theme of poetry in the Library of the Palais Bourbon, Paris, in early 1844 (see Maurice Sérullaz, Les peintures murales de Delacroix, Paris, 1963, pp. 57–59, 324, pl. 55). In an article published in Le Constitutionnel on January 31, 1848, Delacroix described the subject as follows: "He is seated sadly on the cold, naked earth, in a barbarian land. A Scythian family offers him simple gifts, mare’s milk, and wild fruit" (for trans. see Vincent Pomarède in Delacroix: The Late Work, exh. cat., Philadelphia, 1996, p. 234). The Greek historian Strabo (64 B.C.–A.D. 24) appears to be the ultimate source for the information that mare’s milk in various forms was "much relished" by the Scythians (as noted by Davies 1970).

On April 10, 1849, Delacroix mentioned the subject in his journal, as one to which he might devote a painting, and about 1855–56 he worked up a drawing (Kunstmuseum, Basel, inv. 12009.63) and a closely related oil sketch (whereabouts unknown; Johnson 1986, no. 318). In 1856 his friend the banker Benoît Fould (1792–1858) commissioned him to execute a painting on this theme. The resulting canvas (National Gallery, London, NG 6262; Johnson 1986, no. 334) was completed in early 1859, after Fould’s death, but his widow honored her late husband’s commitment, paying Delacroix 6,000 francs for the painting and offering to make it available for that year’s Salon. The catalogue offered the following description: "Ovid in exile among the Scythians. Some examine him with curiosity, others welcome him in their own way, offering him mare’s milk, wild fruit, etc." (see Pomarède 2001, p. 236). It was one of the few paintings by Delacroix in the 1859 Salon that was generally well received, and it inspired some of Charles Baudelaire’s most memorable lines: "And just as exile gave the brilliant poet that quality of sadness which he had hitherto lacked, so melancholy has clothed the painter’s superabundant landscape with its own magical gaze. . . " and, a little further on "The mind sinks into it with a slow and appreciative rapture, as it would sink into the heavens, or into the sea’s horizon—into eyes brimming with thought, or a rich and fertile drift of reverie" ("Salon of 1859," in Baudelaire: Art in Paris, 1845–1862, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne, London, 1965, p. 171).

The Salon canvas is nearly three times larger than the Metropolitan’s version of 1862, a cabinet picture intended for a private collector, which was painted on paper, and the compositional scale has been altered, resulting in a very different effect. (The relative dimensions are 34 1/4 x 51 1/4 in., or 87.6 x 130 cm, for the London version, as compared to 12 5/8 x 19 3/4 in., or 32.1 x 50.2 cm, for the New York version.) The landscape in the later painting is not as "superabundant" as before, and the figures are proportionately larger. Delacroix retained the cruciform diagonal on which the perspective is based, but by placing the groupings closer together and nearer to the picture plane, he arrived at a more boldly frieze-like arrangement that is closer to the original drawing and oil sketch. Increased plasticity of form is also arrived at through a greater use of impasto.

Delacroix did not mention the late variant—his final treatment of the theme of Ovid’s exile—in his journal or, as far as is known, in his letters. Its first owner was the Belgian industrialist François Alfred Mosselman (1810–1867), who may have acquired it directly from him or from a dealer. In either case, he did not have it for long: it was included in his collection sale on March 5, 1863, not six months before Delacroix died on August 13.

[Asher Ethan Miller 2014]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): Eug. Delacroix 1862
François Alfred Mosselman, Paris (until 1863; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, March 5, no. 13, as "Ovide chez les Scythes," for Fr 1,000); [possibly Durand-Ruel, Paris, by 1871]; [Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, until 1873; sold on March 4 for Fr 8,000 to Goupil]; [Goupil & Cie, Paris, 1873; stock no. 7768, sold on March 26 for Fr 9,500 to Schwabacher]; M. Schwabacher (1873–75; sold on January 26, 1875 to Goupil); [Goupil & Cie, Paris, 1875; stock no. 9646, sold in February for Fr 9,500 to Everard]; [P. L. Everard and Co., London, from 1875]; [E. Leroy & Cie, Paris, in 1885]; M. Bayer, Paris (by 1900 [deposited with Durand-Ruel, March 12–31, 1900]; his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 26–27, 1905, no. 14, as "Ovide en exil chez les Scythes"); Jentien; [Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, until 1918; sold on May 29 to Bernheim-Jeune]; [Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, 1918–28; sold on November 23, 1928 to Tanner]; [Galerie Tanner, Zürich, from 1928]; private collection (possibly R. G. Bindschedler), Zürich (by January 1939–no later than 1964); Dr. R. L. Bindschedler, Zürich (by 1964); private collection, Bern (by 1986–2008; consigned to Sayn-Wittgenstein; sold in 2008 through Sayn-Wittgenstein Fine Art, New York, to MMA)
London. German Gallery. "First Annual Exhibition of the Society of French Artists," December 17, 1870–March 1871, no. 65 (as "Arab Encampment," added February 1871, possibly this picture) [see Johnson 1986].

London. German Gallery. "Second Annual Exhibition of the Society of French Artists," April 1871, no. 37 (as "Arabs," possibly this picture).

Paris. École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. "Exposition Eugène Delacroix au profit de la souscription destinée à élever à Paris un monument à sa mémoire," March 6–April 15, 1885, no. 128 (as "Ovide chez les Scythes," lent by MM. E. Leroy et Cie.).

Basel. Société des beaux-arts. "Exposition de peinture française," May 8–June 30, 1921, no. 88 (lent by Bernheim-Jeune).

Paris. Chambre Syndicale de la Curiosité et des Beaux-Arts. "Exposition d'oeuvres d'art des XVIIIe, XIXe et XXe siècles," April 25–May 15, 1923, no. 189 (as lent by MM. Bernheim Jeune).

London. Independent Gallery. "A Few Masterpieces of French Painting (Ingres to Cézanne)," May–June 1925, no. 7 [see Webb 1925 and Johnson 1986].

Paris. Paul Rosenberg. "Expositions [sic] d'oeuvres d'Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) au profit de la Société des amis du Louvre," January 16–February 18, 1928, no. 39 (as "Ovide en exil chez les Scythes," lent by MM. Bernheim Jne. & Cie).

Kunsthaus Zürich. "Eugène Delacroix, 1798–1863," January 28–April 5, 1939, no. 375 (as "Ovide chez les Scythes," lent by a private collection, Zurich).

Kunsthalle Basel. "Eugène Delacroix, 1798–1863," April 22–May 29, 1939, no. 263 (lent by a private collection, Zurich).

Kunsthaus Zürich. "Ausländische Kunst in Zürich," July 25–September 26, 1943, no. 81.

Kunsthaus Zürich. "Ausstellung Europäische Kunst 13.–20. Jahrhundert aus Zürcher Sammlungen," June 6–August 13, 1950, unnumbered cat. (lent by a private collection).

Alfred Robaut. L'œuvre complet de Eugène Delacroix. Paris, 1885, pp. 386, 538, no. 1439, ill. (engraving), erroneously states that it is signed on the right and belongs to M. Choquet [sic], but elsewhere corrects this information, locating it with MM. Et. Leroy et Cie; lists a drawing (no. 1374, present location unknown) and two other paintings of this subject (no. 1375, present location unknown; no. 1376, National Gallery, London).

Étienne Moreau-Nélaton. Delacroix raconté par lui-même. Paris, 1916, vol. 2, pp. 187–88, 204, fig. 401, calls it both "Ovide chez les Scythes" and "Ovide exilé chez les Barbares".

Julius Meier-Graefe. Eugène Delacroix: Beiträge zu einer Analyse. Munich, 1922, ill. p. 231.

Geoffrey Webb. "Ingres to Cézanne." Burlington Magazine 46 (June 1925), p. 288, pl. IIB.

Raymond Escholier. Delacroix: Peintre, Graveur, Écrivain. Vol. 3, Paris, 1929, ill. opp. p. 260.

Louis Hourticq. Delacroix: L'œuvre du maître. Paris, 1930, p. 182, ill., as still in the collection of Bernheim-Jeune.

René Huyghe. Delacroix. New York, 1963, p. 418, colorpl. LVI, as in a private collection, Switzerland.

Martin Davies with additions and some revisions by Cecil Gould in French School: Early 19th Century, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, etc. London, 1970, pp. 58–59 nn. 10–11, calls it a smaller version with some variations of the 1859 painting (National Gallery, London).

Lee Johnson. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. Vol. 3, Oxford, 1986, pp. 139, 151, 158–59, no. 345, calls it a variant of the London painting, but finds it closer to the oil sketch, which he dates about 1855; suggests that "Delacroix heeded the widespread criticism at the Salon of the dominance of the mare at the expense of the hero" by representing Ovid on a larger scale in the MMA picture.

Lee Johnson. The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue. Vol. 4, Oxford, 1986, pl. 143.

Barthélémy Jobert. Delacroix. Princeton, 1998, pp. 295, 326 n. 144 [French ed., Paris, 1997, pp. 295, 327 n. 144], as in a private collection, Bern.

Gary Tinterow in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2007–2008." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66 (Fall 2008), p. 38, ill. (color).

Margret Stuffmann in Eugène Delacroix, Reflections: Tasso in the Madhouse. Exh. cat., Oskar Reinhart Collecion 'Am Römerholz,' Winterthur. Munich, 2008, pp. 76, 78, ill. (color), states that this late version testifies to the importance of the theme to the artist, and adds that he relied on the early oil study for its composition.

Barthélémy Jobert in Une passion pour Delacroix: La collection Karen B. Cohen. Exh. cat., Musée National Eugène Delacroix. Paris, 2009, p. 25.

Colta Ives in Une passion pour Delacroix: La collection Karen B. Cohen. Exh. cat., Musée National Eugène Delacroix. Paris, 2009, pp. 30, 34.

Michèle Hannoosh, ed. Eugène Delacroix: Journal. Paris, 2009, vol. 1, p. 440 n. 164, vol. 2, p. 1552 n. 119.

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