Christ on the Lake of Genesareth
by Eugène Delacroix
32.6-Delacroix-ChristonLake-PAM-0031_0004_0000_1
Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), Christ on the Lake of Genesareth, ca. 1853. Oil on canvas, 17¾ × 21⅝ in. (45.1 × 54.9 cm). Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Gift of Mrs. William Mead Ladd and her children: William Sargent Ladd, Charles Thornton Ladd, and Henry Andrews Ladd in memory of William Mead Ladd

Eugène Delacroix
Christ on the Lake of Genesareth, ca. 1853
Oil on canvas, 17¾ × 21⅝ in. (45.1 × 54.9 cm)
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Gift of Mrs. William Mead Ladd and her children: William Sargent Ladd, Charles Thornton Ladd, and Henry Andrews Ladd in memory of William Mead Ladd

The subject
Christ on the Lake of Genesareth is one of at least ten variations that Delacroix painted of this New Testament parable in faith. [1] As described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ and his disciples, in a boat on the Lake of Genesareth (also known as the Sea of Galilee), encounter a turbulent storm; Christ, who has fallen asleep, is awakened by his disciples and after calming the storm, he chastises them for their fear and lack of faith. [2]

The symbolism
The storm-tossed boat was a popular motif adopted by Delacroix and his Romantic contemporaries, for it acutely conveyed man’s distressing isolation in a hostile universe. [3] This composition emphasizes themes of fear and doubt by focusing on the moment before Christ’s awakening; but audiences familiar with the story would have been reminded of its central lesson to maintain faith in the face of hardship. [4]

At the Armory Show
The American collector William Ladd lent this paining to the Armory Show. It hung in Gallery P, a room featuring works by European and American “old masters.” The organizers aimed to illustrate the linear progression of art, demonstrating that the radical new work developed out of a long tradition of revolutionary art. Delacroix’s canvas was among the earliest dated works in the show and the artist was thus positioned as one of the “grandfathers of the new art.” [5]

The response
Despite the small scale of this canvas, Delacroix’s presence loomed large at the Armory Show, as critics frequently invoked his name in an attempt to draw connections between the art of the past and present. Although this was not among his most controversial works, it was Delacroix’s reputation as a great revolutionary – one of the “wild men” in his own day, who was “infinitely civilized now” [6] – that provided a valuable lesson to audiences who doubted the value and future significance of the recent innovations in avant-garde art.

[1] Scholars have counted between ten and seventeen versions of this subject. See Joyce C. Polistena, The Religious Paintings of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863): The Initiator of the Style of Modern Religious Art (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), 125, n. 7.

[2] This version of the parable is told in Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25. See Portland Art Museum, Portland Art Museum: Selected Works (Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1996), 167.

[3] Lorenz Eitner, “The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism,” The Art Bulletin 37, no. 4 (December 1955): 281-290.

[4] Polistena, 91-92, and Portland Art Museum, 167.

[5] “Through the Galleries,” Town and Country 3485 (March 1, 1913), 44.

[6] “Ultra Moderns in a Live Art Exhibition at 69th’s Armory,” New York Evening Mail, February 17, 1913, 8.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)

The painter Eugène Delacroix was a leading figure of the French Romantic movement. His imaginative approach to subject matter combined with his painterly bravura set him apart from his Neoclassical contemporaries, most notably Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, his greatest adversary. Unlike Ingres, who continued the ordered idealism of Jacques- Louis David, Delacroix undermined tradition and emphasized emotion, drama, and originality. Standing in opposition to convention, Delacroix’s work was frequently criticized and he was often denounced for his pursuit of “ugliness.” However, at the time of his death, his reputation as a great master, an innovator, and a liberator was established, and the next generation of French painters turned to him for inspiration. [1]

When planning the Armory Show, the organizers aimed to create a historical lineage for the radical new works of the Fauves and Cubists, demonstrating that they belonged to a long tradition of revolutionary art. They placed Delacroix at the beginning of this tradition, for he embodied the radical artist whose works, although once reviled, had achieved renown and admiration. Accordingly, Arthur B. Davies’s “Chronological Chart…Showing the Development of Modern Art” listed Delacroix as the leader of the “Romanticists,” and Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin as his descendants. [2]

Armory Show critics aptly acknowledged Delacroix’s influential role, describing him as one of the “earlier gods of modern art,” [3] whose work illustrated “the end of the complete academic reign.” [4] Several reviewers directed audiences to “go directly into the gallery lettered P,” where one of Delacroix’s “epoch-making pictures” [5] hung, for there they would “feel at home.” [6]  His appeal with American audiences is underscored by the fact that the only Delacroix painting in the Armory Show, his Christ on Lake Genesareth (c. 1853), was lent to the exhibition by an American collector, William Ladd. [7]

[1] The French painter Henri Fantin-Latour commemorated his generation’s debt to Delacroix in his Homage to Delacroix (1864, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), completed one year after the artist’s death. This work depicts a number of contemporary artists and writers, including Charles Baudelaire, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Edouard Manet, standing in reverence around a portrait of the artist. 

[2] “Chronological Chart Made by Arthur B. Davies Showing the Growth of Modern Art,” Arts & Decoration 3 (March 1913), 150.

[3] “International Art Show a Sensation,” The Sun (New York), February 18, 1913, 7.

[4] “Painters’ and Sculptors’ Show,” American Art News 11, no. 17 (February 1, 1913), 3.

[5] “Ultra moderns in a Live Art Exhibition at 69th’s Armory,” New York Evening Mail, February 17, 1913, 8.

[6] “Modern Art: The International Exhibition of Drawings, Paintings, and Sculpture Opens To-morrow to the Public – Good Work and Some that Is Weird,” New York Evening Post (February 17, 1913): 9.

[7] Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, 2nd ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 260.

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