Delacroix left Paris on May 20, 1854, for a visit to Augerville-la-Rivière, about fifty miles south of Paris, near Malesherbes. The grand seventeenth-century château d’Augerville had been acquired in 1825 by his cousin Pierre-Antoine Berryer (1790–1868), a distinguished lawyer and member of the Académie Française. The writer Amédée Hennequin (1817–1859) and the Dutch cellist Alexandre Batta (1816–1902) accompanied them, and others joined their company over the course of the following week.
Delacroix was enthralled by Augerville’s scenery and took every opportunity to be outdoors. He described the environs as "true countryside" and rhapsodized about the grounds, surrounding landscape, and fine weather. On May 27, he wrote in his journal, "Before lunch, drew the young horses and made sketches of the fantastic figures in the rocks. While making them I recalled the word[s] of Beyle [François-René de Chateaubriand]: ‘Neglect nothing at all which could make one great.’" There is a pencil drawing corresponding to this subject and date (it is annotated "samedi," or Saturday), which Delacroix returned to for the composition of the present oil sketch, which he painted afterward, in his studio. Although Delacroix often made careful studies both for pleasure and as aides-mémoire, especially from the 1840s onward, as a rule he did not paint out of doors. (For the drawing, see Maurice Sérullaz et al., Exposition Delacroix, [Tokyo], 1969, no. D-30e, ill.; Hannoosh was the first to identify the drawing as the one described in the artist’s journal: 2009 ed., vol. 1, p. 775; on the significance of lansdcape painting for Delacroix during this period, see Vincent Pomarède in Delacroix: The Late Work, Philadelphia, 1998, pp. 117–22.)
Photographs of the region suggest that Delacroix emphasized the large scale of the rocks, perhaps in an effort to evoke a vast and untamed landscape, one suitable to a historical composition. Even so, his quotation from Chateaubriand (which he cited on two other occasions although its source is undetermined) seems at first glance to be rather lofty in the context of so modest a subject. Yet it was characteristic of him to privilege the spirit of the moment over the precise appearance of the motif. Moreover, his anthropomorphizing of rocks in this instance is directly in line with the widely-known advice of Leonardo da Vinci: "By looking attentively at the old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marbles of various colors, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions" (A Treatise on Painting, trans. John Francis Rigaud, London, 1802, p. 84).
That the artist’s aim in the present work was not the faithful reproduction of the thing seen is supported by his written statements on other occasions, and is consistent with his artistic philosophy. It is evident, for example, from his dismissal of Courbet’s Bathers (Musée Fabre, Montpellier), which was exhibited at the Salon of 1853: "When Courbet made the background [for] the bathing woman, he copied it scrupulously from a study that I saw next to his easel. Nothing is colder: it is [like] a work of marquetry" (Journal, October 17, 1853). Just two days before Delacroix made the drawing that eventually served as the basis for the present oil sketch, he left a record of a conversation held with other guests at Augerville, which further illuminates his creative aims in such works: "They believe they will get closer to the truth by struggling with nature for literal truth. The opposite is so: the more literal it is, this imitation, the flatter it is, the more it shows that all rivalry [with nature] is impossible. One can only hope to arrive at [its] equivalent. It is not the thing [itself] one must make, but only the semblance of the thing: it is for the mind and not the eye that one must produce this effect" (Journal, May 25, 1854).