Jules-Élie Delaunay belongs to the eclectic 19th century which, at the beginning of the 1860s, saw a decline in the authority of the academic standard in history painting, in favour of an infinite variety of styles prompted by the imperative of originality and the tastes of a new bourgeoisie. But before he became one of the protagonists in the revitalization of the historical tradition, the talent of this native of Nantes was slow to emerge. The academic curriculum, the overwhelming number of history painters in the École des Beaux-Arts, and the practice of rewarding students from different ateliers each year, made it difficult to achieve early success. Delaunay was a pupil of Hippolyte Flandrin but he was a candidate for the Prix de Rome nine times before he was finally awarded it in 1856. Ten years elapsed between his admission to the École des beaux-arts in Paris and his arrival at the Villa Medici, at the age of thirty. In Rome, Delaunay charted his own learning path: between studying Raphael, which Flandrin had prepared him for, and the Quattrocento painters, whom he was particularly fond of. He travelled, a lot and became friends with several artists outside the Academy, such as Edgar Degas, Léon Bonnat and Gustave Moreau. His constant sketching shows him to have been alive to every aspect of his new surroundings: even more than with old masters, his sketchbooks were filled with the faces of Italian people, Mediterranean landscapes and portraits of fellow students and travellers.
Although Delaunay returned to Paris in 1861, it was not until 1869 that he made his first appearance at the Salon with a work he had been thinking about for a long time. The Plague in Rome finally launched his career. From the outset, it was considered one of the most outstanding paintings of the year and it is still Delaunay’s most famous work. It was first conceived in 1860 when Delaunay had to choose a subject for the sketch he was required to produce in his fourth year at the Villa Medici. It was inspired by an ancient story linked to the life of Saint Sebastian by Jacobus de Voragine: “It is read in the gestes of the Lombards that, in the time of King Gumbert all Italy was smitten with so great a pestilence that unnethe [scarcely, hardly] they that were alive might bury the dead, and this pestilence was most at Rome and Pavia. Then the good angel was seen visibly of many, and an evil angel following bearing a staff whom he bade smite and slay, and as many strokes as he smote an house, so many dead persons were borne out of it. Then at last it was shewed to one by God’s grace that this pestilence should not cease till that they had made an altar to Saint Sebastian at Pavia.” Delaunay reworked the composition of his original sketch (Brest, Musée des Beaux-Arts) with modifications that significantly changed its spirit. He concentrated the action by reducing the number of figures that were scattered around and blunting the impact. He significantly altered the postures of the figures, the positions of the two statues and the ornamentation. Above all, he reworked the light and colour, adding a glaucous tonality to create that mysterious, crepuscular atmosphere suggestive of a heavy pestilence in the air.
In praising the painting critics, such as About, Albrespy, Bouniol, Mantz, and Saint-Victor, launched into a description of the stories behind it; Gautier penned one of his customary ekphrastic pieces about it: “In the twilight, the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius reveals that we are in an ancient street at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. The dead and the dying lie on doorsteps and on the steps of the porticoes, some stiff and blue, others convulsed in the throes of death. A few rare living beings, no less pallid than the dead, slip silently and mysteriously along the walls, as if they were afraid to arouse the attention of death, which hovers in the air over the plague-stricken city. Others have fallen to their knees, begging for mercy from heaven; Christians at the foot of the Cross, pagans before the statues of Aesculapius, now powerless to heal. The pale-winged angel has suspended his flight in front of a house which he points out to the exterminating spirit: this gaunt, haggard, greyfaced ghost, seemingly formed from a concentration of miasmic exhalations, is indeed terrifying. It is a magical vision full of dark poetry. The monster, in an incredible frenzy of movement, knocks on the door with his spear. Each blow opens a grave. But to temper this intense horror, in the background of the painting, like a distant ray of hope, a vague procession seems to be starting in a wisp of light on the Capitoline Steps. The vengeance of God is appeased. The plague will stop.”
Like Gautier, many praised the “beautiful horror” of a painting that called to mind, without imitating it, Poussin’s La Peste d’Asdode (Paris, Musée du Louvre), noting its chromatic vigour, which some identified with Delacroix’s palette. The influence of Delaunay’s contemporary Gustave Moreau, an intimate friend, is in fact much more striking, both in the architectural setting and in the Byzantine brilliance of the palette, which makes the colours sing in an unreal, greenish atmosphere. Delaunay and Moreau are often discussed together as representatives of an anticlassical tendency that grew out of Romanticism. This was how Charles Blanc presented the work at the 1878 Universal Exhibition, describing it as “a dramatic painting, marked by violent lines and mournful colours, whose composition seems to have been riven from one end to the other.”
The fortunes of the work, which was acquired by the State and exhibited in the Musée du Luxembourg from 1872, are the reason for the existence of two autograph replicas. Dated 1879 and the only known one to be signed, the one presented here is the immediate consequence of the resounding success of the work at the Universal Exhibition, where Delaunay was awarded a first class medal. Reduction is an age-old practice, but it seems all the more natural in the case of this painting, whose reduced format has often been commented on. Critics in 1869 were disappointed that the painter had reduced his composition to the proportions of a genre painting. Ten years later, Charles Blanc remarked, to the contrary, that “The Plague in Rome is a small painting that grows bigger because of its style, it being a truth about drawings and paintings that size is not a measure of a work’s greatness.”