Artist: Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix
Media: Graphite, laid paper
Dims: 15 x 19 x 1.125 in. (38.1 c 48.2 x 2.8 cm)
Date: c. 1820s
Perhaps one of the more unique pieces in the Coe collection is a drawing by the 19th-century Old Master Eugène Delacroix. The drawing is a small, 11 ½ x 7 ½ inches page from one of his sketchbooks. There are twelve simple contour line drawings of cats. The cats were drawn with graphite on laid paper with Delacroix’s estate’s red chop of “E.D.” on the bottom right. However, more than unique, the piece is an excellent example of the eclectic nature of the Coe collection.
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix, known simply as Eugène Delacroix, was a French Romantic painter. The Romantic period refers to the predominant Western canonical art produced from circa 1800 to 1850.
The French Romantic art movement was anything like how it sounds. Romantic paired with French seems redundant: French Romanticism could only refer to lovers in the spring bounding to embrace amongst the flowers blanketing the hillsides of Provence. On the contrary, death and drama better describe the art of this movement. Think of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The orchestra’s amplified percussion punctuated with all the instruments’ ba-ba-ba-bammms is a better metaphor for the visual arts of the French Romantic period.
French Romanticism came on the heels of the flamboyant, aggrandizing Neoclassical period partially influenced by Napoleon Bonaparte. Neoclassicism’s Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon’s Crossing the Alps depicts Napoleon Bonaparte on a rearing horse embarking on a ride to victory and conquest. The antithesis of Neoclassicism’s iconic painting is Théodore Géricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa, the quintessential painting of French Romanticism. It depicts a scene of decay, horror, and a circling shark waiting to devour an emaciated survivor to fall off a doomed raft. The stark shift from Neoclassicism’s ostentation to French Romanticism’s brutally honest paintings of suffering was unlike the frolics mentioned earlier in lavender fields.
After Géricault’s death, Delacroix was considered Géricault’s successor during the French Romantic period. Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios was considered even more violent and gory than Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. However, unlike some of his morbid works, Eugène Delacroix’s Cats is a more palatable piece, especially for cat lovers. Like all Old Masters, he was an avid and skilled draftsman who drew the subjects of his paintings first. Cats is just a single page out of likely thousands of Delacroix’s sketches and drawings.
Cats includes sketches of several different types of cats. The top three sketches (left to right) are of tigers drawn from the profile. The second drawing captures the most detail, including the hair of the tiger’s mane and some of its stripes. Delacroix most likely drew these from life at the Paris Zoo. Royal Tiger is an excellent example of how he might have utilized sketches from Cats for this lithograph. This drawing gives an insight into how Delacroix could have processed his sketches into finished pieces.
The other sketches are of house cats. They are more gestural than his sketches of the tigers, some drawn with a simple contour line. Delacroix captured them in playful positions––he had to sketch them quickly because cats do not stay put for long. The bottom left sketch looks like a dog instead of a cat; the ears are not like a cat’s. The perspective of this drawing is more typical of a dog ready to play, with a tail most likely wagging. An argument that it is a cat is justified because of the short timeframe for drawing it. The sketches with a single line may have been of the most rambunctious cats, but they capture their playfulness.
Delacroix was one of the first Old Masters to extensively use graphite pencils for sketching. The pencils he used were very much like the ones used by artists today. Graphite came from deposits around Europe. The graphite would be formed into long cylinders with the tips ground to a point. The artist would put these cylinders into a metal or wood stylus. Wood with a hollow center drilled for the graphite also became readily available. Graphite pencils allowed the artist to use varieties of mark-making, including for finer detail and thicker lines to indicate volume and value. Delacroix must have preferred graphite pencils for these particular reasons. Cats is an excellent example of this.
Cats teaches viewers how artists thought and planned their final projects. This single page from the thousands of pages in Delacroix’s sketchbooks gives an intimate look into his thought process. Like Cats, the Coe collection’s many works give viewers the same insights into cultures to “practice” pieces of a single artist. In context with the majority of art in the collection, Cats is unique yet shows the commonalities among all cultures.
Mary Stewart, Launching the Imagination, 4th ed (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2012), 4.
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 2nd ed, 2nd vol (Upper Saddle River, Pearson Education, 2005), 944-5, 950-2.
James Watrous, The Craft of Old-Master Drawings (Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), 142-4.
https://www.biography.com/musician/ludwig-van-beethoven. Accessed January 20, 2023.
https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010065870#. Accessed on February 13, 2023.
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/337104. Accessed on February 13, 2023
https://musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/chateau-malmaison/collection/objet/le-premier-consul-franchissant-les-alpes-au-col-du-grand-saint-bernard. Accessed on April 19, 2023.https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010064841. Accessed on April 19, 2023.
RTC No: EU0028
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011