Baltimore-owned gems sparkle in Philadelphia The Delacroix show focuses on late paintings by the 19th-century master. The Walters owns three, the BMA one. lTC

October 18, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Sometimes it takes outsiders to make people aware of treasures in their own city.

Even longtime Baltimore museum-goers may not have known that 17 works of art by French painter Eugene Delacroix reside here. But four of them, three from the Walters Art Gallery and one from the Baltimore Museum of Art, are in the superb show "Delacroix: The Late Work" now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The show, celebrating the bicentennial of the artist's birth, contains more than 100 paintings and works on paper by Delacroix (1798-1863), one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.

Of American cities, only New York has lent more to this show. Baltimore's contributions outnumber those of Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia itself. Two of the Walters works are considered the best of their kind that Delacroix created. The Baltimore Museum's painting surprisingly comes from the Cone Collection, known for 20th-century art.

Two of the Walters' paintings are religious, "Christ on the Sea of Galilee" (1854) and "Christ on the Cross" (1846). They are among the gallery's six Delacroix works, and William Walters bought them together. "They were in a show of 'The World's 100 Masterpieces,' put together by French critic and dealer Edwin Wolf in 1883," says William R. Johnston, Walters curator of 18th- and 19th-century art.

Between 1840 and 1854, Delacroix created at least six paintings on the subject of "Christ on the Sea of Galilee." They depict the New Testament episode in which Christ, having embarked on the sea with his disciples, was asleep when a fierce storm arose. In a panic, the disciples awoke him; he calmed the storm and rebuked them for lack of faith.

The Walters' is the latest and best Galilee painting. It has the most natural looking arrangement of disciples battling the storm, and the sea and rocky landscape behind are the most beautifully achieved. "The drama of the subject and the drama of the technique reinforce one another," says Johnston. "The painterly technique, with the short, staccato brush strokes, adds to the movement of the whole thing."

Leading Delacroix scholar Lee Johnson, in his critical catalog of Delacroix's paintings, calls this work "the glorious culmination of a singularly beautiful series." He also quotes 19th-century French critic Paul de Saint-Victor, who termed it "the most beautiful seascape of the French school."

Similarly, the Walters' "Christ on the Cross" (1846) is one of a series of late Delacroix works on the Crucifixion subject, of which five are in the Philadelphia show. Johnson calls the Walters painting "the finest of the several versions of the subject painted by Delacroix between 1846 and the end of his life." And he quotes 19th-century art historian Charles Ponsonailhe, who called this work "incontestably one of the most beautiful religious paintings of our time."

The composition of this work is especially well achieved. Groups of figures to left and right form diagonals that meet in the Christ figure, and reds in each of these groups echo the blood of the dying man. And, Johnston remarks, "The way he dissolved forms in light was one of the reasons the moderns revered him so."

The other Walters painting at Philadelphia is "Marfisa and Pinabello's Lady' (1850-1852), one of Delacroix's literary subjects. Taken from the narrative poem "Orlando Furioso" by Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), it depicts an episode in the life of the female warrior Marfisa.

Having given a ride to an old crone, Marfisa encounters another warrior, Pinabello, traveling with a beautiful but insolent young woman who jeers at the crone. Marfisa challenges and unseats Pinabello, then forces the younger woman to disrobe and give the older one her beautiful clothes. Delacroix depicts the moment when the crone snatches the clothes away from the nude young woman.

The nude figure, shown from the back, has interested scholars for its references to earlier works. In the show's catalog, art historian Vincent Pomarede notes its similarity to ancient sculptures, to the figure of Minerva in Raphael's "Judgment of Paris" and to two adaptations of the Raphael by Rubens. "In fact," Pomarede writes, "the figure of Hera (the goddess on the far right) in the later [Rubens] version is similar in both technique and composition - even the hairstyle - to Delacroix's figure of Pinabello's lady."

The BMA painting in Philadelphia (among 11 BMA Delacroix works including seven prints) is "Perseus and Andromeda" (1849-1853). It's a preparatory oil for a later version now owned by the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany, and also in the Philadelphia show. They depict the moment when the Greek hero Perseus flies through the sky to rescue the beautiful Andromeda from a sea monster about to devour her.

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