This extraordinarily vibrant painting is one of only two autograph preliminary sketches in oil for Delacroix's most famous public commission, the painting of the ceilings in the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre (fig. 1).
By the time Delacroix received his commission, he was already one of the most celebrated public artists of his day, having decorated the Salon du Roi and the Deputies' Library, both in the Palais Bourbon, the Church of Saint-Denis du Saint-Sacrement and the Peers' Library in the Palais du Luxembourg. Later commissions would include the Hôtel de Ville and the church of Saint-Sulpice.
When the Galerie d'Apollon was rebuilt following a fire in 1661, its decoration was entrusted to Charles Le Brun who, in the central and largest space, which Delacroix was later to fill, had planned to paint a Triumph of Apollo, god of the day, as a tribute to 'le Roi Soleil'. However, the project was left unfinished as Louis XIV turned his attention to Versailles. After generations of deterioration, following the advent of the Republic in 1848, money was set aside for the restoration of several key rooms in the Louvre, including the gallery, which was to be restored to its original appearance as envisaged by Le Brun.
Despite the specific nature of the commission, it actually afforded Delacroix enormous artistic freedom. As Lee Johnson writes:
'For the central compartment, assigned to Delacroix, there was no model to follow, since no preliminary drawings for it seem to have been known. Thus while the general theme of the painting was dictated by what was known to have been Le Brun's intention, Delacroix was...free to select his own episode from the legend of Apollo, and to treat it in his own way. At the same time, he was conscious of his weighty responsibility to produce, in the most important compartment of the ceiling, a work congruent with the baroque splendour of the whole as well as with its iconographic theme...He soon settled on the theme of Apollo slaying Python, which afforded greater dramatic possibilities as well as a more profound moral content. The episode is related in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Jupiter, angry that men seemed to have sworn allegiance to crime, resolved to punish them by flooding the earth and destroying the greater part of the human race. When the flood receded and the sun warmed the moist earth, countless forms of life were brought forth, some previously known, others new and strange. Among the latter was the giant snake Python, which struck terror into the new-born race of men. Coming to the rescue on his golden chariot, Apollo "almost emptied his quiver to destroy the serpent, overwhelming it with a thousand arrows, till the venom flowed from all its dark wounds".'(op.cit., p. 117)
Delacroix's decorative scheme loosely follows an artistic trope based on the triumph of good over evil, which stretches back to Michaelangelo's Last Judgement, with a central heroic figure and compositional planes divided between light and dark. Delacroix brought this eternal theme to life in a riot of drama, movement and colour, working his way through to the final composition with hundreds of drawings (fig. 2). This oil sketch appears to have been executed relatively early in Delacroix's conceptual process, since it preserves aspects of a major early compositional drawing in the Louvre, and is quite different to the second oil sketch, which is closer to the finished design. Compared to the latter, this works is notable for its exceptionally fiery palette, and a greater focus on the central figure. As Johnson writes: 'In this 'première pensée' Delacroix has already worked out: the essential arrangement of Apollo and his team, including Diana; Boreas, and the nymph on the left; the entire group in the lower right; and Victory at the top. Iris and the other deities at the top righ have yet to assume a clear identity.' (op.cit, p. 129)
The influence of the old masters, in particular of Veronese and of Delacroix's hero Rubens, was key through the genesis of the Louvre project. The artist borrowed poses from both masters in the finished work, which in its cooler colouring and flatter areas of light and shade is closer to the former. But in this study, the fiery palette and strong brushwork clearly show the influence of Rubens. Indeed, it is no coincidence that in July 1850, when Delacroix was working hardest on working out the final scheme for the ceiling, he spent several days in Antwerp studying the Flemish master and commented on how he might be able to bring some of the lessons he had learned from his trip to bear on his commission.
This extraordinary painting thus provides a rare insight into Delacroix's creative process, and condenses into their rawest form the qualities for which Delacroix is best known: movement, light, colour and drama, which combined into the finished version, were met with universal acclaim. One critic wrote: 'La splendeur de son tableau domine le faste de la galerie, son opulence éclipse sa profusion, son style commande sa manière...Lebrun n'est plus chez lui: il est chez Eugène Delacroix.'