Oil on canvas
H. 0.41 m; W. 0.27 m
Purchased in 1985
MD 1985 - 1
"I have just received a commission [...] It is a painting for a bishop of Nantes [to whom] painted studies and sketches have to be submitted," wrote Eugène Delacroix to his sister Henriette de Verninac on July 28, 1820. The painter Géricault was initially commissioned for this large painting representing the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, but passed it on in secret to Delacroix. Delacroix’s inspiration for the subject did not come easily. He made a number of studies during the year 1820, and produced this little sketch in 1821. Its composition closely resembles that of the finished work, which was finally hung in Ajaccio Cathedral.
On December 31, 1819, Count Auguste de Forbin, Director of the Royal Museums, commissioned a painting from Géricault on the theme of the Virgin of the Sacred Heart. Probably having no particular enthusiasm for the subject, Géricault secretly entrusted the work to Delacroix, his colleague in Guérin’s workshop, whom he knew to be in financial need. It was agreed that Géricault would sign the work, and that the two artists would share the allotted sum of 2,400 francs. Delacroix completed the painting in late 1821 (and was paid his due in August 1822), and Géricault put his signature to the work. The painting was originally intended for Nantes Cathedral, but was apparently deemed unsuitable by the religious authorities, who rejected it. At the request of Count de Lantivy, the Prefect of Corsica, it was sent to Ajaccio in 1827 where it was hung in the cathedral above the first altar to the left of the entrance. The hoax was revealed in 1842 in an article by L. Batissier in the Revue du XIXème siècle, but the painting’s exact location was not disclosed until 1930.
Delacroix set to work in July 1820. The difficulties he encountered in terms of inspiration and composition are reflected in his letters. "The idea of this painting I have to do haunts me like a ghost. [...] Everything I have tried so far has been hopeless," he admitted to his friend Pierret on October 20, 1820. And to Soulier, in a letter dated February 21, 1821: "I do, I undo, I begin again, and I have yet to find what I’m looking for." The catalog of Delacroix’s posthumous sale (1864) includes nineteen sheets of studies for "a painting of the Sacred Heart in Nantes." The Louvre owns several studies and the Musée Delacroix has two small watercolors and a drawing, all of which testify to the painter’s painstaking research. The Virgin is sometimes depicted with arms outstretched, positioned diagonally above a group of supplicants or a woman holding a group of naked children in her embrace; in other sketches, she dominates the worshippers in a hieratic and statuary pose. The little sketch in the Musée Delacroix shows the final composition, which is less baroque and more reminiscent of Géricault’s monumental style. Delacroix evidently endeavored to imitate his friend’s technique, which is also suggested by the palette of browns, ochers, blues, and dark reds. This study was presented at the 1864 retrospective exhibition of Delacroix’s work on Boulevard des Italiens, and described as the "finished sketch for his first painting, the Virgin" (though it was actually the second, coming after the Virgin of the Harvest). It differs in size only from the painting in Ajaccio Cathedral. Despite a deeply rationalistic upbringing inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment, Delacroix continued to paint religious works after the Virgin of the Sacred Heart. His powerful style found its fullest expression in the strongest and most poignant subjects, culminating in his ultimate masterpiece: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (church of Saint-Sulpice).
André Joubin, Correspondance générale de Delacroix, Paris, Plon, 1936, volume I.
Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue, volume I, Oxford, 1986, n° 152 ; volume II, repr.n° 134.