Delacroix’s Education of Achilles (c.1845)

This drawing for a ceiling decoration depicts the education of Achilles by Chiron, the immortal centaur who was thought by the ancients to be a bridge between the natural and spiritual worlds. In this capacity he would have great appeal for artists whose works seemingly based on nature convey the spiritual. Struck by a poisoned arrow which could not kill him because he was immortal, it caused him endless torment. He is consequently recognized as the original wounded healer, an archetype important to prophets, shamans, poets and artists. 

 

The pointing finger on the extended arm of Chiron is extremely important; it “paints” the background and is the pose of an artist stretching to reach his canvas. Yet in touching nothing but the air, the gesture signals his ability to straddle the border between two realities: the natural and spiritual. He is a great master.

 
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Delacroix, Sketch for The Education of Achilles (c.1845) Louvre

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On his back rides the young Achilles with bow and arrow aimed in the same direction as Chiron’s finger. He is “Delacroix” who even in middle age was grateful to the older masters who had taught him. The arrow, a traditional symbol in art for a paintbrush, was also the attribute of St. Sebastian whom we have shown elsewhere was virtually the patron saint of artists who paint themselves.   

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Detail of Sketch for The Education of Achilles

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In addition, Chiron’s equine lower half leaps into the painting, rear legs on the ground, forelegs flying. His figure is a play on words. An easel in French is un chevalet (based on the word for a horse, cheval) because its traditional form has four legs like a horse and is usually placed at a slight angle relative to the artist, facing into the background like Chiron. Even Italian has the same link between an easel (cavaletto) and a horse (cavallo).

 

Notes:

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