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Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
by Eugène Delacroix
Gift from the Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, in honor of Philippe de Montebello, 2016
Episode 9 / 2018
First Look

Its technique expresses the energetic fervor of an early draft and bridges the distinction between drawing and painting."

This preparatory sketch lays out the composition for one of Delacroix's most important and influential murals, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. One of three subjects that comprise his Chapel of the Holy Angels, its narrative derives from the Book of Genesis (32:24–32). In Delacroix's design, Jacob and the angel appear in the shallow foreground locked in combat at lower left. A grove of tall trees rises dramatically behind them; the thick, overlapping trunks echo their intertwined bodies. Through a clearing on the lower right, a cluster of figures suggests the flock of sheep and caravan that Jacob accompanied before his encounter with the angel.

Delacroix received the commission for Saint-Sulpice in 1849 and very quickly worked out his composition through a series of drawings, although its execution in situ would not be completed until 1861 due to competing projects and bouts of poor health. Delacroix likely submitted this dynamic sketch to officials at the Prefecture of the Seine for approval to proceed. Produced in pen and ink with oil paint, its technique expresses the energetic fervor of an early draft and bridges the distinction between drawing and painting. The artist's lively touch is evident throughout, both in the vigor of the underlying ink lines and in the flourishes of painterly highlights among the dense greens that dominate the picture.

Delacroix chose to represent a climactic moment of the biblical story: after fighting throughout the night, at daybreak—conveyed here by the pale sky visible through the foliage—the angel strikes a tendon in Jacob's thigh, thereby ending their battle. In his invitation to the unveiling of the chapel, Delacroix described the meaning of the scene, writing, "This struggle is regarded by the holy books as a symbol of the trials that God sometimes sends his chosen ones." The finished chapel incited great debate over, among other things, the perceptible freedom of expression in the context of a religious artwork. Ultimately, Jacob's combat as portrayed by Delacroix came to signify the artistic struggle of the modern painter.

Ashley Dunn
Assistant Curator
Department of Drawings and Prints
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