Lithograph on off-white wove paper, 1829, by Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863)
I had heard of Delacroix mainly as one of the master painters and founders of the French Romantic School but I had never come across any of his drawings until this somewhat haunting tiger kept catching my attention in the museum. It shares a space with other paintings, objects and lithographs which one may loosely ascribe to what was once known as Orientalism, but I’m not sure whether this term is now considered to be out of favour? In any regard, they attempt to capture the European fascination with the exoticism of what was not European. As is the case with fashions, however, one suspects there started to grow in the grand houses of the genteel a competitive obsession with collecting all manner of artefact which carried this kind of subject matter. Hence why there was such a flourishing trade in antiquities plundered by the conquering imperial mind-set on expeditions to all these foreign lands. Famous point in case: the hotly contested Elgin Marbles. Plus all manner of Egyptian artefacts. When you consider the destructive imposition to local culture, not to mention the disturbances caused to many of the sleeping dead, you can see why there is now such a raging argument surrounding ‘cultural appropriation.’ Given this popularity, it’s not difficult to see how many replications of this kind of item quickly became kitsch but there is something distinctly arresting in this particular treatment of the Royal Tiger which instantly places it in a class above that of a mere high-society fad.
The first aspect to consider is the title given to this feline. Why is it a ‘royal tiger’? Given that it’s certain Delacroix would have made his study of the beast from an inhabitant at the Paris Zoo and not at an actual palace in the sub-continent, we can only assume that the name is a stylistic pretension. Was he trying to curry import with his clientele in the manner of any savvy artist with one eye on commercial interests? Was he trying to create the allure of romanticism which surrounded the cultural status of the tiger as being analogous to foreign regal mysticism? What immediately springs to mind is the fascinating likelihood that Delacroix might very probably have been familiar with William Blake’s great and popular poem, The Tyger, published already in 1794 and almost certainly translated into the French by the 1820’s. What instantly pins Blake’s poem to this tiger is its startling gaze and wide stunned eyes. What is the tiger so alarmed by? There is either a kind of terrible epiphany or a bleak prophecy which enthralls it. In Blake’s poem the line reads: In what distant deeps or skies/Burnt the fire of thine eyes? Blake establishes the tiger as morally dichotomous to the lamb; the former representing ‘experience’ and the latter, ‘innocence.’ The tiger is the mighty power of God the Creator, while the lamb personifies His grace as comforter to man. Indeed, the tiger itself embodies the poised duality which resides between aesthetic beauty and primal ferocity. Delacroix depicts his tiger at rest, its lithe feline body almost overly cumbersome in its passive quasi-domesticated repose and yet it is simultaneously certainly ready to strike at whatever it holds in its predator stare, a certain pent-up energy vested in its front forelegs. It’s suggestive of that complex spiritual ambiguity which Blake later raises in his poem: Did he who made the Lamb make thee? There is also something distinctly Byronic in the energy captured in the tiger’s eyes: there are forces of the sublime at work here; beauteous nature on the cusp of violent action. It is, as far as the Romantics were concerned, the ultimate poetic expression.
But what has so triggered its ire? Is it possible this is an ironic inside joke by Delacroix: a deft satire on bourgeoisie capitalism? Is it just possible that the tiger, hanging on the walls of some grand home, is justly horrified by the material ostentation he is looking out at? Is it possible that while we might look on the tiger - a creature so strange and dangerous by reputation to a nineteenth century Parisian audience - with a sense of nervous alarm, he is likewise regarding us in the exactly the same light? Does that stare forecast the fate of the tiger itself? The fact it is soon to be trophy hunted to virtual extinction? Is it looking on man and seeing a mindless predator lurking, a foe and not a friend? Is the predator about to be preyed upon? There does appear to be a sort of wry grimace on his whiskered face: the look of someone who cannot quite contemplate the absurdity of the world that surrounds him. Alternatively, the tiger is gazing upon his royal master with obedient awe, the king or prince having tamed and commanded the beasts he rules over. Personally, I prefer the former thread of these two possibilities.