Oil on canvas
H. 0,555 m ; L. 0,450 m
Noticed by the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire when it was exhibited at the 1845 Salon , Mary Magdalene in the Desert is one of the major pieces in the museum’s collection. Among Delacroix’s religiously inspired works, this painting is certainly one of the most exceptional, both for its composition and for the mystery that emanates from this woman, with her thick, sumptuous mane of a hair. It was one of the works selected by Delacroix for display at the Universal Exhibition of 1855.
Ever since the first time this painting was exhibited at the 1845 Salon (n° 435), it has had a striking impact on all who have seen it - if we refer to the numerous articles written about the work, in which the vibrant praise is only occasionally interrupted by a critical view. Indeed, Baudelaire was not the only one to express his fascination with this strange work, which is, in fact, unique in Delacroix’s religious output given the emotional intensity that radiates from the figure, her enigmatic smile, and her expression, a luminous apparition against a dark and melancholy background.
Furthermore, there’s no question that Delacroix attached a great deal of importance to his Magdalene, as he wanted to include it in the brilliant selection of his works displayed at the 1855 Universal Exhibition. Even more, it is possible that the painter may have been sensitive to Baudelaire’s perspicacious tribute at the time: "Here is Mary Magdalene’s famous head, with a strange and enigmatic smile, her head tilted back - and with such an unearthly beauty one doesn’t know if she is wreathed in death, or graced by the trance of divine love." ("Exposition Universelle de 1855" in Curiosités Esthétiques ).
At some point, probably after 1845, Delacroix painted a Magdalene at Prayer (Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur), which seems to be more similar in style to his other religious works. In Théophile Gautier ’s words, it was a "faltering Magdalene supported by an angel," and did not radiate the same mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere of the work in the Musée Delacroix.
According to Achille Piron (1865), Delacroix supposedly sold Magdalene in the Desert in 1854, although the purchaser’s name is unknown. In 1885, when it was exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts as part of the event organized on behalf of the subscription to create a monument to the memory of Delacroix, the records indicate that it was loaned by D.J. Osiris (the same person who purchased the Malmaison property in 1896). The Musée Delacroix purchased the work in 1990.
Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes, Tome II, Paris, 1975.
Lee Johnson, The paintings of Eugène Delacroix, a Critical Catalogue, Volume II, Oxford, 1986, n° 429, repr. 239; Fourth Supplement and Reprint of Third supplement, Oxford, 2002, n°429, p.239 et p.334.
Arlette Sérullaz, "Acquisitions" in Revue du Louvre, I - 1991, p. 136, repr.