The art of physical presence: revisiting the painter’s Abduction of Rebecca.
The Abduction of Rebecca, by Eugène Delacroix, available to view on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website
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Editor’s note: In light of the fact that museum and gallery exhibitions remain closed during the coronavirus pandemic, we have invited our contributors to reflect on an artwork that is particularly significant to them and that is easily viewed online.
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A young girl stands gazing at a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her jeans are patched and her long hair is unkempt. It’s a Saturday afternoon in the mid-’70s—subway cars, dazzlingly painted in neon-bright colors, rumble through a South Bronx in flames, the city is close to bankruptcy and the federal government is refusing to help it, and in the cold-water lofts and abandoned industrial spaces of Lower Manhattan, artists are experimenting with new ways of seeing and being in the world.
The girl isn’t thinking about any of that. She’s never been to the South Bronx. Her mother had been an artist, but she’d died years earlier; most of her works were skillful renderings in oil of pictures from Life magazine. The girl wants to be an artist, too. On Saturday mornings in the city she draws from live models at the Art Students League, then heads uptown to the museum.
The painting she loves at the Met depicts a scene of violence and destruction, but halted as if in a state of suspended animation. In the background, flames and clouds of smoke billow from a castle on a high hill, darkening the aqua sky. The foreground, too, is filled with vibrant color and swirling, turbulent motion: a dappled gray horse rears up as its rider, a dark-skinned man wearing a blue and red turban, twists backward to grip the pale, limp body of a woman, who is being hoisted onto the horse’s back by another turbaned man. In the middle distance, a knight on horseback gestures wildly, giving directions.
I was that girl. The painting, The Abduction of Rebecca, by Eugène Delacroix, still hangs in gallery 801 of a Metropolitan Museum of Art now emptied of visitors until at least mid-August, when it hopes to reopen. Delacroix was my first love in art, and in these weeks and months of severe sensory deprivation in New York City, when I’ve experienced the punishing luxury of barely venturing beyond my Upper West Side neighborhood; when the flowers unfurling in nearby Riverside Park, during this spring of unparalleled loss, have assumed an uncanny urgency; when art and most of the people I know, and the very idea of community, have been reduced to pixelated images on a screen, I’ve been thinking about that painting, wondering why it moved me in my youth, and what it might mean to me now.
Delacroix’s The Abduction of Rebecca, painted in 1846, is based on a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. (Highly popular in its day, this swashbuckling medieval romance has fallen out of favor among all but the most diligent nineteenth-century scholars.) One strand of the novel’s intricate plot concerns Rebecca, a beautiful Jewess who is skilled in the art of healing. When the Christian knight Ivanhoe is wounded while jousting to defend the honor of his exiled King, Rebecca nurses and falls hopelessly in love with him.
The knight in Delacroix’s painting is not Ivanhoe, however, but his enemy, the Templar Knight, Brian de Bois-Guilbert. Recently returned from the Crusades. Bois-Guilbert desires Rebecca; he and his allies have imprisoned her, along with Ivanhoe and other companions, in the castle of a villainous Norman. When the castle is attacked by Saxons seeking to free Ivanhoe and is set on fire, Bois-Guilbert decides to abscond with Rebecca. In the painting, he’s instructing his two Saracen (i.e., Muslim) slaves to carry her far away from the battle.
Of this complex stew of religious and cultural identities, I knew little in my youth. But the prone figure of Rebecca fascinated me then, and moves me now. In the midst of battle and in the hands of her kidnappers, she appears to have fallen unconscious. She is the still, silent center of the painting’s roiling conflicts: between Saxon and Norman for the soul of England; between her Saracen abductor and the horse he barely controls; and between Christian and Muslim in the world at large.
To whose world does she belong? The shawls flecked with gold that wind around her head and waist, the jewels adorning her neck, and her pointy gold slippers, which seem in danger of sliding off, identify her as an “Oriental”—a cousin to the harem dwellers in Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment, which the artist had painted a dozen years earlier, in the wake of his life-changing, six-month journey to Algeria and Morocco. Yet she is clearly a very different creature from her Saracen abductors, and the dreams unfolding behind her closed eyes are hers alone.
The tween me also didn’t recognize this scene as a prologue to sexual violence; nor was I aware of the young Delacroix’s disturbing tendency, amply recorded in his celebrated Journal, of exercising a droit du seigneur over the many female models who came to pose for him. (“Delacroix needed to possess his models in order to paint them,” we learn queasily in “The Sphinx of Modern Painting,” Sébastien Allard and Côme Fabre’s essay for the catalog to the remarkable Delacroix retrospective, the first since 1963, which originated at the Louvre before traveling to the Met, where it closed in January 2019.) Delacroix was forty-eight when he painted The Abduction of Rebecca, and it’s possible that by then the misogynist ardor of his youth had calmed. But eroticized female flesh still anchors his vision of a world in flames.
And yet. Translating his work with the live model to canvas without extensive preparatory sketches or underdrawings was a key element of the Romantic revolution he and his artistic contemporaries spawned—an art of unparalleled physicality, presence, and emotion.
And physical presence, whether of art or people, is something I’m missing these days. One example: the smell of oil paint that hits you as you walk through room 700 of the Louvre museum, past the grand-scale masterpieces of nineteenth-century French Romantic painting, such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). An enduring image of Parisian barricades, painted in the wake of the July insurgency that toppled King Charles X, it was purchased by the newly installed French government, but quickly deemed too inflammatory to exhibit. It channels the anarchic power of sex in the service of revolution.
Considering The Abduction of Rebecca in the light of our own revolutionary moment—when confrontations with mortality and the naked display of deadly prejudice are sparking calls for radical changes in society—I want to tell the dreaming figure of Rebecca to wake up; to join hands with her Saracen abductors and overthrow the Templar Knight, the evil Christian crusader; to flee the battles of Saxon and Norman, which really don’t concern them; to go off together and found a utopian world order. Just as I want to tell the tween me to search neglected corners of history for female creators and an artistic tradition that can sustain her.
But as for Delacroix—well, I’m still not entirely done with him. It was his choice, after all, to make Rebecca the star of his mysterious painted drama. The Templar Knight, orchestrating her abduction, commanding, directing, is merely a bit player in this scene, in which a certain passive receptivity is paramount. Feeling, in Delacroix’s art, is everything. Perhaps, like Flaubert, the painter thought, “Rebecca, c’est moi.”
For over two decades, New York–based author and cultural critic Leslie Camhi’s essays on art, architecture, books, fashion, film, and women’s lives, including her own life and travels, have appeared in major US publications, such as the New York Times and Vogue. The author of numerous catalog essays on artists (and one legendary art dealer, Ileana Sonnabend), she also holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Yale University, and her scholarly publications include essays on female kleptomania and nineteenth-century French medical photography. Her translation from the French of Violaine Huisman’s award-winning memoir, Fugitive parce que reine, will be published by Scribner in spring 2021.