New acquisition: 'Apollo slays Python' by Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Apollo slays Python, 1850, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam31 October 2012

The Van Gogh Museum has enriched its collection by purchasing the oil sketch Apollo slays Python (1850) by the French painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). Delacroix made this study for the most important commission of his career: the ceiling paintings for the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre in Paris, which he executed in 1851.

Apollo slays Python is the first of two preparatory studies in oil for the ceiling painting in the Louvre. For this scene – in which the Greek sun god Apollo kills the monster Python with his arrows − Delacroix used coarse, expressive brushstrokes and complementary colours. The bright yellow and orange in the sky section surrounding Apollo contrast with the dark purple used to paint Python and the smoke issuing from the monster’s mouth. This enhances the powerful impact of both colours, of both sections − of the good and evil that are battling against each other in this scene. This painting is thus an outstanding example of Delacroix’s use of colour and his expressive style of painting, for which he was so greatly admired by contemporaries and generations of artists after him.

Van Gogh and Delacroix
For Vincent van Gogh, too, Delacroix was an important example. Throughout Van Gogh’s career as a painter, he drew inspiration from the French artist’s use of colour, expression, and artistic genius. In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh would frequently emphasize his admiration for Delacroix’s work, especially in relation to the Frenchman’s colour theory. For instance, at the beginning of November 1885, he wrote: ‘For it’s absolutely certain that the laws of colour, which Delacroix first ordered and put forward in full and in context to the general benefit — as Newton did gravity and as Stephenson did steam — that these laws of colour are a light.’

By placing colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel – like yellow and purple – next to each other, Delacroix created the effect that both colours reinforced each other. Van Gogh adopted this basic principle of complementary contrasts and applied it in his own work for the rest of his career.

Superb addition to the collection
Van Gogh made several visits to the Galerie d’Apollon, and in a letter of 28 June 1888 he mentioned the ceiling painting as an example of the use of colour in his own Sower with setting sun (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). The oil sketch of the ceiling painting exhibits the expressive and contrasting colours that Van Gogh so greatly admired in Delacroix’s work.
The newly acquired Apollo slays Python therefore makes a superb addition to the Van Gogh Museum’s collection. What is more, because of its sketchlike character, Delacroix’s artistic considerations and his experiments with colour tones and brushstrokes are clearly visible.

This new acquisition enables the Van Gogh Museum to demonstrate, for the first time, how Delacroix served as an example to Van Gogh and played a key role in the latter’s artistic development. It will therefore be accorded an important place in the exhibition Van Gogh at work, with which the Van Gogh Museum will be reopening in May 2013.

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