French historian Kauffmann (The Black Room at Longwood, 1999, etc.) sweeps readers up in his magnificent obsession for Eugène Delacroix’s mural Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.
The author ingeniously weaves together the stories of Delacroix’s life (1798–1863), his family (his father had a 30-pound testicular tumor surgically removed without anesthetic; a teenaged brother fell in battle with the Russians), and the actual composition of the mural, commissioned in April 1849 and completed at the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice in July 1861. Kauffmann befriends the sexton, who shows him rarely seen regions of Saint-Sulpice above and below (some 5,000 people are buried in the crypt). He discovers painters and sculptors who have studios in unknown nooks of the building; he observes the ravages of time and water; he finds rooms filled with litter from previous decades and centuries, including two broken but nonetheless stunning statues of angels whose facial features resemble those in Jacob. Meanwhile, he has an uneasy relationship with a lecturer from the Louvre, a woman whose acerbity and coolness both annoy and attract him. In his fierce endeavor to understand the appeal of the mural, Kauffmann reads and rereads the account in Genesis of Jacob’s struggle, all that Delacroix wrote, all that others have written about the artist and his mural. He visits Delacroix’s homes and haunts, walks the battlefield where the younger brother fell, engages in conversation a potpourri of people from cops to tightrope walkers to tourists to filmmakers to organists to occupants of homes in which the painter once lived. He visits the church so regularly that he gradually becomes one of the odder bees inhabiting the hive. The long-sought epiphany finally arrives in the damp, dark annex of a museum when Kauffmann views another painting, François-Joseph Heim’s The Arrival of Jacob in Mesopotamia. It is a simple moment, but profoundly affecting.
A masterpiece of investigation, explication, introspection, and narrative, brilliantly illuminating an artist’s mind and a scholar’s heart. (Illustrations, not seen)