Eugène Delacroix, the 19th-century painter who was gestural and iconoclastic when artists weren't expected to be either, became the victim of a vandal last February. An unidentified 20-something woman brought a permanent marker to the Louvre-Lens, a newly opened satellite of Paris' most famous museum. She used it to assault Delacroix's spectacularly populist Liberty Leading the People, showing a confidently bare-breasted lady walking over downed bodies and wielding a French flag while a ragtag brigade follows behind. The woman wrote on it “AE911,” an abbreviation for Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Guards apprehended her, a local prosecutor recommended she be hospitalized and the real AE911 group, which suspects 9/11 was an inside job, denounced her. The painting would be easy to repair. Still, the 9/11 connection sparked imaginations, and Delacroix became a subject of blog entries by curious Americans, which is funny, given that American art institutions have always shied away from the French Romantic.

In 1987, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., canceled a traveling Delacroix exhibition it had tentatively agreed to host, citing the absence of some of the painter's most famous works — particularly The Women of Algiers, a wistful 1834 painting of Algerian concubines smoking hookah. The public wouldn't be compelled, gallery director J. Carter Brown argued.

Harald Szeemann, a globe-trotting curator then at the Louvre, had organized the show and found Brown's reasoning irksome. He wrote to tell him so: “Your admittedly somewhat unsophisticated public, why don't you educate it to higher perception …?”

Brown opted not to.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized its own Delacroix show in 1991. The Philadelphia Museum of Art co-organized one with Paris' Réunion des Musées Nationaux in 1997, but then there was nothing.

Now that the first U.S. Delacroix exhibition since — and the first ever at a West Coast museum — has opened in the relatively small city of Santa Barbara, “Why there?” seems a fair question.

“I don't know why he didn't make it past the Mississippi, but he didn't,” says Eik Kahng, the assistant director and chief curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, who curated “Delacroix and the Matter of Finish.”

Kahng, who specializes in 18th- and 19th-century art, arrived in Santa Barbara in 2009. A show of 19th-century masters she'd organized while still working at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore had, coincidentally, already been scheduled to travel to her new place of employment. It included Delacroix's loosely turbulent Christ on the Sea of Galilee (1854).

Soon after the show opened, a local woman called Kahng. She had seen the show, and had a painting in her family's collection that she would like to bring in to compare with the Delacroix. She emailed some photos, which depicted the same scene as Delacroix's wall-sized, 1845 work The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, in a confident, expressive hand that did uncannily resemble the painter's. Kahng went to see the painting in person. Four years of research and authentication processes ensued.

“There seemed to be a general consensus, with few reservations,” that it is a Delacroix, Kahng says. “The more it is cited and scrutinized, the more consensus will be had.”

While it is close to Los Angeles, and has exhibited many of the same post–World War II artists that L.A. museums and galleries have, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has a far more old-fashioned aura, and, in fact, existed two decades before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art even had a building.

Operated out of a regally renovated post office since 1941, when Santa Barbara's general public and civic leaders seemed unanimously in favor of starting a museum despite the nation's current state of war (ammunition was stored in the vaults alongside art), the museum has a courtyard adorned with pillars and Greek antiquities. Called the Ludington Court after donor Wright Ludington, son of the wealthy publisher of the Saturday Evening Post, who came to California as a student, it has always looked almost exactly as it looks now. Ludington also donated work by French Impressionists.

So did the McCormicks, members of the storied Chicago family that obtained its money first through inventing the mechanical reaper and then through investment banking, who moved to Santa Barbara because of Stanley McCormick's mental health battles. The Mortons, of the Morton Salt Company, donated American art from the 1800s and early 1900s.

Wandering through the galleries, you get that safe, stable feeling that all this has been here for a while. This differs from the feeling you might get at LACMA, MOCA or the Hammer, where buildings are relatively new and the institutions' main donors often are still players in local cultural politics. Even the Getty Center, only completed in the 1990s, has a veneer of newness despite its oilman funder's historic influence.

The sense of stability the Santa Barbara Museum of Art exudes makes it plausible that a historic painting by a French Romantic would be found nearby. But the show explores how unstable and surprising that painter's legacy is.

Not long before Kahng learned of the Santa Barbara Delacroix, the single established authenticator of Delacroix's work, Lee Johnson, died. So Kahng consulted with a range of experts and learned how challenging authenticating the artist's work could be. He would do looser, smaller versions of large paintings after completing the large ones, which meant they were to the scale of — but weren't — studies (which are done before the main painting to help prepare for it). The Santa Barbara Marcus Aurelius is one of these after-the-fact copies, done subsequent to the more famous version Delacroix exhibited in Paris. “There are too many indications of reworking of the idea” for it to be otherwise, Kahng says.

Kahng's show came about not only to present the newly uncovered painting to a larger audience but also to explore this odd aspect of Delacroix's process. Walking through the show's suite of prints that Delacroix made in response to Shakespeare's Hamlet, which the museum just acquired, Kahng points out how different the same Shakespeare characters look from print to print: “He doesn't even believe in the consistency of a single character.”

This specific, idiosyncratic approach made it nearly impossible for Delacroix's students to emulate him. So while he ran a studio of apprentices in the style of old masters, and students would help execute his work, few would become “masters” in the way he was.

“How discontented the students were — they were sort of like pack animals,” Kahng says, stopping in front of a pair of paintings in the show, a small version of Delacroix's Christ on the Sea of Galilee and a student copy. The boat in Delacroix's version angles aggressively across the canvas, filling most of the space, and the water nearly reaches the canvas's top as if it's a single upward swell. The student has put an island in the background, shown more of the horizon line, defined individual waves. The student didn't understand.

The Santa Barbara Delacroix hangs on a wall adjacent to a large print of the first version, so you can see the differences. Aurelius, the Roman emperor, is on his deathbed in both, with his young son Commodus dressed in a red toga beside him and advisers gathered around.

In the earlier version, Commodus, who would take over as emperor and turn previously peaceful Rome into a brutal mess, looks conniving. In the Santa Barbara version, more vivid and assured, he's young and self-centered, and feminine. “He looks like one of the women of Algiers,” Kahng says.

She points out how, also in the Santa Barbara version, there's an air of knowingness — the advisers seem to know, as they face Commodus, that disaster is imminent. “So does Marcus Aurelius,” Kahng observes. “But what is he going to do? He loves his son.”

DELACROIX AND THE MATTER OF FINISH | Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara | Through Jan. 26 |

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