In my father's home, we hardly spoke of painters, any more than we did of writers and poets. Painting seemed an abstract activity to me when I was young. Nobody in our little town dabbled with art; people were more concerned with trying to make a living and such activities were considered frivolous.
My first real encounter with paintings took place in the Musée d'Orsay during a summer trip to Europe when I was 19. I stared in amazement at Édouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.The plump female nude at the heart of the canvas, who so scandalized 19th-century opinion in the Paris Salon, could still stop visitors in their tracks more than a hundred years later.
Over the years, I had gotten acquainted with more artists and their works. One of those who fascinated me was Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix, the painter of pleasure and pain. The creator of The Barque of Dante repeatedly depicted the first sin, and his paintings present man's savagery; they show his cursed side. He sizes up the disaster of the world, and through some act of grace, manages to save it from destruction.
From the story You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore
Another time, he described to her his recent trip to the Louvre. “And there I was in front of Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante, and everyone else had wandered off, so I had my own private audience with it, all those agonized shades splayed in every direction, and there’s this motion in that painting that starts at the bottom, swirling and building up into the red fabric of Dante’s hood, swirling out into the distance, where you see these orange flames —”
He was breathless in the telling. She found this touching, and smiled in encouragement. “A painting like that,” he said, shaking his head. “It just makes you shit.”
I had not known it then but the bodies shown in Delacroix's paintings, submitting to the fury of cruelty and love, were already familiar to me. Injury and ecstacy, bestiality and rupture, the fusion of pain and bliss was the very story of the saints, mystics and martyrs the Catholic religion I grew up in extolled.
I struggled a lot with the concept of flesh; and its supposed weakness and its goading. It had to be mortified, which was a huge challenge, the flesh being omnipresent. In the ninth commandment, the union of man and woman was described using the words "the work of the flesh". The mystical body of Christ, the body of the Church --- this religion certainly used a lot of physiology even in its most spiritual aspect.
We were told repeatedly to subdue our senses, to conquer them. the wretchedness of man redeemed by love; these were the woes sung in tales of salvation. To me, they seemed like exquisite agony.
My existence was bound by all these prohibitions. The division between Good and Evil was clear. Remorse accompanied sin, confession went with repentance, and then comes the happy end of forgiveness. What other belief could compete with such a merciful religion?
At the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, visitors can see murals painted by Delacroix including his provoking Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Delacroix depicted one of the most puzzling passages in Genesis. Who is this adversary Jacob is fighting so intensely? Is he an angel? Not only does the stranger refuse to defend himself, he also faces the son of Isaac with disarming calm. He looks and acts like the victor. Yet Jacob prevailed, but he is wounded for life.
In his invitation to inspect his work at the church of Saint-Sulpice in July 1861, Delacroix wrote:
"Jacob is travelling with the flocks and other gifts he is taking to his brother Esau in the hope of appeasing his anger. A stranger appears, blocking his path, and engages him in a fierce struggle which ends when Jacob is struck on the nerve of his thigh by his adversary, rendering him powerless.
The holy book see this struggle as a symbol of the trials God sometimes sends His chosen ones."
Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, I think about my own salvation. I think about my lifelong struggle to be good; I wonder if others ever have it easy. I think of Jacob as he fought. Must every victory come with a price? Must we really walk across the valley of death before we are given life?
So many questions. So little time. Perhaps the answers lie in these paintings. So let me look. Let me look.