Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: A Theme in Symbolist Art

Article excerpt

Until 1861 when Eugene Delacroix treated the subject in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, the story of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel was conspicuous by its near neglect in art. Claude Lorrain painted a version in which the pint-sized protagonists are a thinly disguised excuse to pursue issues relating to landscape and to light. In Rembrandt's memorable treatment, the figures fill the frame, locked in a confrontation dense with psychological implications. Delacroix's choice could owe a debt to his illustrious Dutch predecessor, although the Romantic's interpretation of the theme is quite different. In many ways, the Saint-Sulpice murals are the culmination and fulfillment of Delacroix's lifelong aims, as chronicled in his Journal. Similarly, the artists within the Symbolist circle acknowledged a profound debt to Delacroix--both in theory and in practice. The Jacob painting, in particular, seemed to hold a special allure since the theme is treated by several major painters, most notably, Gustave Moreau, Paul Gauguin, and Odilon Redon, who completed at least five versions.

As told in Genesis (32: 24-29), Jacob wrestles the entire night with an unknown intruder who finally triumphs by touching and laming Jacob's leg. In turn, Jacob demands a blessing and is renamed "Israel," meaning "one who has striven with God ... and has prevailed." (Gen. 32:28) The theme of transcendence and redemption through struggle, implicit in the Jacob narrative, is a recurrent one in nineteenth century art and thought--prominent in the idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the music-dramas of Richard Wagner, the biblical exegeses and occult writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, as well as the criticism of Charles Baudelaire. For the Symbolist generation Jacob's encounter summoned a multiplicity of readings and levels of meaning, a multivalent metaphor for the making of art and the interior processes of the artist. The fact that Jacob images proliferated is not only a tribute to the potency of Delacroix's legacy, but also is reflective of the prevailing philosophical and artistic discourses that valorized struggle as a prerequisite to redemption. As a character, Jacob is rife with contradictions and ambiguities that would appeal to Symbolist sensibilities. As a subject, the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel offered a complexity and elasticity that each artist could make his own.

The shadow of Delacroix was amplified and extended through the criticism of Charles Baudelaire. From February 1846 to May 1847, Baudelaire frequented Delacroix's atelier, as an "auditeur respectueux," soaking up the Romantic's views on art and the creative process (Moss 22). The poet's review of the Salon of 1846 contained almost verbatim transcriptions of Delacroix's ideas, not otherwise available to the public until the 1893 publication of the Journal. Baudelaire freely attributed passages to the painter--often as direct quotations--in his glowing and copious coverage of his work (2: 746-47). No one reading this and subsequent reviews could fail to be immersed in the spirit of Delacroix. In many respects Baudelaire acted as an intermediary between Delacroix and the younger generation. Even before the publication of the Curiosites esthetiques in 1868, Baudelaire's aesthetic theories--a la Delacroix--fueled Symbolist writers. Reportedly, Paul Verlaine referred frequently to a tattered copy of the 1859 Salon review that he carried constantly in his pocket (Dorra 1). Not surprisingly, Baudelaire isolated those aspects of Delacroix that were in synchrony with his own aesthetic aims and in so doing heralded full-blown Symbolism.

For both Delacroix and Baudelaire, imagination and memory are the linchpins in the reciprocal processes of making and of viewing art. Associations to nature, embedded in memory, are sparked through the intercession of the artist's imagination that combs the visible world--not to duplicate its forms--but rather to consult, in Baudelaire's words, "un dictionnaire" of motifs to act as metaphors for the internal workings of the soul (2: 433). …