Work The Education of the Virgin
Department of The Musée National Eugène-Delacroix
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The Education of the Virgin, Eugène Delacroix
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Delacroix produced this painting in 1842 during his month-long sojourn in the Berry region at the home of George Sand in Nohant. Although the initial purpose of his visit was rest and relaxation, he quickly wrote to his childhood friend Jean-Baptiste Pierret asking him to send paints, for he said: “I am going to have some fun with the son of the house, undertaking a small painting for the church.” A few days later, in a letter to his friend Frédéric Villot this time, he explained that, despite his intentions of resting, he had undertaken to paint a Saint Anne for the local parish. The subject preoccupied him, for he mentioned it again in a final missive to Pierret at the end of the month. “The women all look like those sweet figures one sees in the paintings of the old masters. They are all Saint Annes.” In the end, Delacroix gave the painting to George Sand, and the copy by Maurice Sand was hung on the altar of the village church.
A well-documented painting
When George Sand sold the painting in 1864 to Edouard Rodrigues, she told him how Delacroix had arrived at the composition. The painter had reportedly told her: “On entering your park just now, I saw a splendid subject for a painting, and a scene that touched me. It was your farm-woman and her grand-daughter. I was behind a bush where they could not see me, so I could study them at my ease. They were sitting on a fallen tree trunk. The old woman had one hand on the child’s shoulder, and was giving her a lesson in reading. If I had a canvas, I would paint them.” In a second letter to Rodrigues written on February 25, 1866, the author of Lélia explained that the canvas had been cut from the fabric used for corsets. While Delacroix painted, she read him novels. Her maid and god-daughter posed for the artist, while her son Maurice made copies during the process to study the master’s approach.
In the painting, the Virgin and Saint Anne are alone, sitting side by side in the middle of a rather majestic landscape. What could have been just a simple, domestic scene becomes something rather strange, in the way it is smothered, confined by the dense foliage of the trees.
The only concession to iconographic tradition, a symbol of Mary’s virginity and an allusion to what awaits her, is the line of rosebushes in the middle ground. The painting as a whole is upheld by a remarkable harmony of tones, which is also unusual for Delacroix’s palette. The density of the greens is complemented by the somewhat Mannerist accents of the drapery in the timeless clothing worn by the two women.
The meaning of the artwork
This painting seems to have been important enough to Delacroix for him to submit it to the Salon of 1845. Nevertheless, it was refused by the jury in the first round.
A number of historians have questioned this unusual subject in Delacroix’s work. The patronage of the church for which the painting was done undoubtedly dictated the choice of subject. Many researchers have pointed to the fact that the painter’s contact with George Sand and her love of gardens piqued his interest in nature and the beauty of flowers. Lastly, Delacroix was surely sensitive to some of the major discussions that were bound to have taken place during evenings at Nohant, discussions surrounding the major preoccupation of the lady of the house who was firmly committed to women’s education as one of the main factors in women’s liberation.
Michèle Hannoosh éd., Eugène Delacroix. Journal, Paris, José Corti, 2009, t.2, p. 1542
André Joubin éd., Correspondance générale d’Eugène Delacroix, Paris, Plon, 1935-1938, t. II, p. 106-109, 195 et 213
Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981, t. III, n°426
Eugène DELACROIX (Charenton-Saint-Maurice, 1798 - Paris, 1863)
The Education of the Virgin
Oil on canvas
Signed bottom left: Eug. Delacroix/1842
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