Rejecting the strict classicism of the artistic establishment in France during the early years of the 19th century, Eugène Delacroix became one of the pioneers of the French Romantic movement, leading a revolution against the staid, controlled Neoclassical style and embracing a more thoroughly modern aesthetic in painting. For Delacroix, subjects depicting wild animals were primarily vehicles through which he could give full rein to his Romantic imagination, and the artist expressed a particular fascination with the subject of big cats. In 1830, the same year that the artist painted his masterpiece La Liberté guidant le peuple, he also painted the most accomplished animal painting of his young career, Un jeune tigre jouant avec sa mère, which he exhibited that year and in the Salon of 1831. The tiger ultimately became a subject with which the artist would identify personally and one he would return to throughout his career.
The interest of the Romantic painters in animals was driven by the idea that the truest mode of creation involved free expression of the artist’s feelings, and wild animals were seen as a way for artists to understand this freedom within themselves. If an artist looked deeply enough, without fear of the untamed wild and setting aside moral judgment, he could locate something human in the heart of the animal, and in turn, understand the animal within himself as well. This interest in expressing individualized emotional states through the lens of animals can be seen in works like Horse frightened by lightning, by Delacroix’s contemporary Théodore Géricault. Describing Delacroix’s own Un jeune tigre jouant avec sa mère when it appeared at the Salon, one anonymous reviewer identified this impulse in Delacroix’s work as well, writing: "This singular artist has never painted a man who resembled a man as closely as his tiger resembles a tiger… It is astonishing to see animals painted with greater force, exactness and resemblance than men."
There certainly seems to be evidence that Delacroix related strongly on a personal level to the big cats which appear in his paintings. Beginning in the late 1820s, Delacroix's interest in exotic animals was fueled by visits to the Jardin des Plantes and Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris, where he was often accompanied by his close friend and fellow artist Antoine-Louis Barye. Delacroix spent hours observing, studying, and drawing both the live animals in the menagerie at the jardin, and stuffed, posed specimens in the zoology galleries of the museum. He would observe the animals' movements and anatomy and then work up his firsthand sketches into more elaborate and inventive compositions. Delacroix used the occasion of one such visit to the Jardin des Plantes on 19 January 1847 to reflect in his journal on his experience working among the animals:
"Extraordinary animals! …I had a feeling of happiness as soon as I entered the place and the further I went the stronger it grew. I felt my whole being rise above commonplaces and trivialities and the petty worries of my daily life. What an immense variety of animals and species of different shapes and functions! At every turn, I saw what we call deformity side by side with what seems to us to be beauty and grace of form… The tigers, the panthers, the jaguars, the lions, etc. Why is it that these things have stirred me so much? Can it be because I have gone outside the everyday thoughts that are my world; away from the street that is my entire universe? How necessary it is to give oneself a shake from time to time, to stick one’s head out of doors and try to read from the book of life that has nothing in common with cities and the works of man. No doubt about it, this excursion has done me good and has made me feel better and calmer" (L. Norton, trans., The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, London, 1995, pp. 57-58).
It was in this same year, 1847, that a tiger became part of the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes, and as a result the subject began to increasingly appear within Delacroix's oeuvre. The artist explored the subject of the tiger in a wide variety of states and emotions–tensed to pounce, resting or sleeping, playful interactions between multiple tigers, tigers hunting or being hunted, and, as in the present painting, guardedly observing potential prey. Delacroix’s fascination with these big cats was driven in part by exactly this changeability between these states–in the way they possess the ability to spring suddenly and ferociously from languor into life. After 1847-1848, the works on the subject become, both in their quality and quantity, a "true obsession" according to Vincent Pomarède. Théophile Gautier, an art critic and Delacroix’s friend, wrote of the artist’s resemblance to the great felines found in his paintings: "He knew how to soften his ferocious mask with a smile full of urbanity. He was mellow, soft as velvet, seductive as one of those tigers whose extraordinary supple grace he excelled in rendering." The sculptor Auguste Préault also saw this connection between Delacroix and his carnivorous subjects, asserting, "when Delacroix paints, he is like a lion devouring his piece of flesh!"
The inspiration to translate his animal studies into dramatic scenes of hunting and combat came from Delacroix’s artistic predecessors Peter Paul Rubens and George Stubbs, as well as contemporaries like Barye and Géricault. Such brutal scenes of life-and-death conflict between animals are a metaphor for the great struggles of civilization, which play such a central role in the artist's oeuvre. Tigre jouant avec une tortue, however, which dates to the last years of the artist’s life, is far more personal and introspective in tone than these earlier violent works. Tigre jouant avec une tortue depicts instead a surprising meeting between a dominant, powerful predator and a much smaller and weaker species. Having trapped the tortoise beneath his paw, the tiger’s killer instinct gives way to confusion and curiosity; the beast appears to ponder the tortoise and what to do with it. This unexpected, even whimsical subject is perhaps meant to draw attention to the human aspect in the noble cat–just as the tiger’s supposedly unmatched strength is overcome by the shell of the simple tortoise, so is man powerless against the forces of nature no matter how high he might consider his position in the world to be. The distant landscape borders on abstraction, with fluid, swift applications of harmonious color forming the broad boundaries of the ground, mountains, and sky beyond, tinged pink by the setting sun. This landscape is a beautiful example of why Delacroix is still considered one of the great colorists of the 19th century while also being spare enough to keep the focus of the painting solely on the contact between the two animals.
The Rockefeller's Delacroix is related to a group paintings by the artist which depict of a pair of seemingly mismatched adversaries, like a tiger confronting a snake on the ground or in a tree, all painted in the final decade of the artist’s life. The best-known of these works is Tigre et serpent from 1862, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The threat of the hissing snake’s poisonous bite effectively neutralizes the tiger’s accustomed reliance on its size, speed and strength, and there is a standoff between the serpent, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, and the tiger, who represents impassioned brute force. Art for Delacroix was a means of reconciling powerfully opposing forces and emotions – savagery and grace, cruelty and beauty. Delacroix probably felt inclined at this late stage in his career and with his health growing increasingly frail to muse on a more subtle and reflective vision of this confrontation between animals, in contrast with the violent clashes he had depicted as a younger man. In his diaries from this same period, Delacroix muses on his own diminishing energy, and grows increasingly devoted to continuing to innovate in his art with what little time remains to him: "To finish requires a heart of steel. I am sustained…only by the hope of carrying the work through to completion" (L. Norton, trans., op. cit. 1995, pp. 349-440).
When Alfred Robaut compiled his catalogue raisonné of Delacroix’s work in 1885 he originally dated the painting to 1858, only realizing the work had been dated by the artist when he saw it in the major retrospective of Delacroix’s work held that same year. Several other paintings of big cats in confrontation with smaller animals do date to the late 1850s, and it is possible that Delacroix added some finishing touches, as well as the signature and date, when the work ultimately left his studio. Delacroix was, however, still painting these subjects until 1863, the last year of his life, like his Lion and Alligator from that year, now in the Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Théophile Silvestre, the artist’s first biographer and friend, concluded his published eulogy for Delacroix with the following tribute: "Thus expired, almost smiling, on the 13th of August 1863, Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding, who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart; who over forty years touched every chord of human passions, and whose grandiose, suave and terrible brush went from saints to warriors, from warriors to lovers, from lovers to tigers and from tigers to flowers." Silvestre’s reflection on Delacroix’s life and work deeply touched Vincent van Gogh when he read it, and he wrote to the painter Anthon van Rappard in August 1885 that he had been reflecting on Delacroix because of Silvestre’s words, particularly the artist’s assertion that while "one should take one’s studies from nature… the actual painting had to be made by heart." This idea was at the very heart of Romantic painting, which represented the first gasp within the 19th century of modern paining as we know it today and finds beautiful expression in the Rockefeller Delacroix, which so reflects the artist’s own life at this moment in his career. The journalist Auguste Vacquerie, reflecting on Delacroix’s towering position as a modern painter wrote: "Delacroix, so restless, so convulsive, prey to every anxiety and, despite it all, resplendent with the immense promise of the future, was one of the most honest personifications of this great nineteenth century. How could he fail to imbue his canvases with what he was and what was within him?" (Eugène Delacroix: au profit de la souscription destinée à élever à Paris un monument à sa mémoire, exh. cat. 1885, pp. 5-6).