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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Romantic Orientalism: Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) Illustrated Egyptian travel narratives

By Alexandra A Jopp

Eugene Delacroix, as one of the most significant French painters of the Romantic era and the first male painter in the 19th century to paint a harem from first-hand experience, has a special place in the history of Orientalism in art. During an 1832 trip across North Africa, Delacroix met a local sultan who honored the European visitor by giving him a rare look inside the Muslim world, a look that included the opportunity to see that most exotic feature of Islamic culture, the harem. When Delacroix returned to France, he recreated the scene he had witnessed with models and produced Algerian Women in Their Apartment.

Eugene Delacroix.
Algerian Women in Their Apartment, 1834.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Compared to most harem scenes, the painting, in Tom Prideaux’ words, is “a triumph of sensual delicacy” (107). Cezanne remarked that the color of the red slippers belonging to the three women in the harem in Delacroix’s painting “goes into one’s eyes like a glass of wine down one’s throat” (Blake 3). Similar, Renoir said that “he could smell incense in it – which is all the more disturbing when combined with the lassitude of the women as they lounge in their confined chamber” (Vaughn 252). The painting gives a vision of Orientalism at a time when France had just conquered Algeria and claimed it as a territory. Though he painted the scene from a recreation, Delacroix was able to use his experience in Algeria to present Muslim women in their most intimate setting, a place Europeans were not normally allowed to enter. The painter wanted to give an idea of Oriental life by representing women of the harem in their exotic dress, sitting in a beautiful interior. The work is very descriptive with attention to many nuances and possesses a sensual beauty and melancholy. Delacroix uses light and color to great effect, drawing the viewer into the picture “by its powerful harmony of color values, its completely baroque and asymmetrical yet balanced rhythm of bodies and space” (Friedlaender 121). Each of the women has her own colors: black, red and blue for the servant; pink, white and green for the woman holding the stem of narghile; blue, red and yellow for the woman next to her; and red, white, brown and gold for the woman on the left. The combination of red and green has a particularly strong effect, conveying passion and sensuality. Eugene Fromentin gave a colorful description of Delacroix’ master work: Imagine a collection of all kinds of precious materials, yellow damask, with black satin stripes and with gold arabesques on a black ground, and silver flowers on the lemon background; a whole array of scarlet silk with two strips of olive; orange beside violet, pinks crossed with blues, delicate blues with cold greens, half-emerald cushions, crimson, purple and garnet-red, all this put together with the imaginativeness that comes naturally to Orientals, the only true colorists in the world. (Jullian 82)

Fromentin’s analysis, it is worth noting, in addition to describing the painting, also expresses some of the European attitudes that came to define Orientalism: a fascination with the exotic practices of a foreign people who are easily stereotyped (in this case, as “the only true colorists in the world” who have an “imaginativeness that comes naturally”). The patterns of the rugs, cushions and tiles are of the foreground contrast to those on the wall and the curtain in the background, which is left in shadow. The four women are almost on the same line, and Delacroix paints the foreground in much more detail than the background. When viewing the picture, one’s gaze passes smoothly from one figure to another, from the standing black servant to the woman with a narghile, to the red slippers, carpets and pillows and to the two other women. The colors and light seem to run into each other, creating a shimmering luminous effect. The viewer of the painting is left with the sense of having seen something intimate, even forbidden. Intricate Persian rugs, calm women dressed in silk clothes with make-up and jewels, the Black servant, the richness of the interior. All of these items contribute to the splendor of the picture. As Darcy Gimaldo Grigsby wrote: The power of the picture resides in its successful integration of discrepant descriptive and generalizing registers. On the one hand, the tableau flaunts Delacroix’s newfound knowledge in its plethora of sumptuous details that describe how things look: patterns of tiles, pillows, rugs, jewelry, and fabrics. On the other hand, those details are everywhere subordinated to the self-evidently painterly handling of the composition’s overall atmospheric lighting: the dusky late afternoon interplay between golden light and veiling, cushioning shadows. (Grigsby 78)

While a masterful piece of art, Algerian Women in Their Apartment also demonstrates how Orientalism could over-exoticize the Muslim culture. While harem life, in Delacroix’ presentation, is mysterious, perhaps even glamorous, the reality is that life in a harem was rather unextraordinary. Concubines wearing flowery Arabic clothes had a strong influence on the artist, who saw in them much colorful charm and eroticism. Actually, though, they were just ordinary women onto whom Dealcroix’ European sensibilities projected the exoticism that was so much a part of his work. Though Algerian Women in Their Apartment is his signature work, Delacroix produced many other significant works on various subjects and themes derived from a wide range of sources. His early paintings frequently used religious themes and, with The Virgin of the Sacred Heart (1821) and Bark of Dante (1822), it became obvious that a new talent had arrived on the French art scene. So startling was this arrival that an exposition of the two paintings in 1822 left at least one observer with the impression of a “meteorite that has fallen in a stagnant bog.” When Greece was fighting for its independence from Turkey, Delacroix painted Massacre at Scio (1824) and Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi (1827). The depiction of contemporary events became an important feature of Romanticism in its early heroic period, and paintings such as these powerfully conveyed a spirit of freedom, energy and struggle, even amidst defeat and death. Baudelaire, in fact, suggested that the real content of Delacroix’ art lies in the expression of “passion.” The poet also commented on the artist’s “morality,” seeing in his work, “nothing but devastation, massacre, conflagrations; everything bears witness against the eternal and incorrigible barbarity of man” (Baudelaire 133). Massacre at Scio, especially, has been criticized for its morbid nature, though many people see the work as an opening to new methods in art.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
La Vierge du Sacré-Cœur 1821
Musée National Eugène Delacroix, Paris

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Bark of Dante, 1822.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Massacre at Chios, 1824. 
Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, 1827
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux

Delacroix also worked with historical, mythological, biblical and literary themes that he borrowed from poets and writers such as Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron. During a trip to England in 1825, Delacroix studied paintings by Constable and became familiar with the watercolors of Richard Bonington. The works of Shakespeare inspired him to paint Hamlet (1839), The Death of Ophelia, (1844) and The Death of Desdemona (1858), while the Byron play Sardanapalus moved him to produce one of his major works, Death of Sardanapalus (1827), perhaps one of the finest works of the 19th century that was inspired by three ideas: the East, history, and death. Here the viewer will find all the Oriental characteristics, “a cruel, bejeweled prince, ravishing victims, a naked black male slave, a thoroughbred foaming at the mouth, and, spread on muslin, Golconda’s treasures mingled with carved weapons” (Jullian 47).

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Death of Ophelia, 1843
Musée Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Death of Desdemona, 1858.
Location Unknown

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
The Death of Sardanapalus (detail) 1827

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Sketch for The Death of Sardanapalus c. 1827

Delacroix’ 1832 trip to North Africa, in addition to leading to Algerian Women in Their Apartment, produced hundreds of sketches and dozens of pictures of the country, its inhabitants and its customs. His other best-known works from this time include Moroccan Caid Visiting His Tribe (1837), Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1839-41), The Sultan of Morocco (1845), and The Lion Hunt (1854). In an 1858 article, Theophile Silvestre noted Delacroix’ mastery, no matter what the subject: “[He] has a sun in his whole scale of human passion; grandiose, terrible, or calm, the brush went from saints to warriors, from warriors to lovers, from lovers to tigers, and from tigers to flowers” (Friedlaender 109).

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Moroccan Caid Visiting his Tribe.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1839-41)

For more information on Orientalist painters, see The Orientalists: Painter-Travellers by Lynne Thornton (1994).


Baudelaire, C. (1955). The mirror of art, critical studies. Phaidon Publishers. 

Blake, P. (1984). "Lured by the Exotic East." Time 9 (Sep): 1-4.

Friedlaender, W. (1974). David to Delacroix. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press. 

Grigsby, D. G. (2001). Orients and Colonies: Delacroix's Algerian Harem. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Jullian, P. (1977). The Orientalists: European Painters of Eastern Scenes. Oxford, Phaidon Press Limited. 

Vaughan, W. (2003). Romanticism and Art. New York, Thames & Hudson Inc.

Suggested Readings:

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern DebateNew HavenYale University Press, 1992.
AlloulaMalekThe Colonial Harem. Trans. Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich. MinneapolisMNUniversity of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Beaulieu, Jill, and Mary Roberts, eds. Orientalism's Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, PhotographyDurham: Duke University Press, 2002.
Benjamin, Roger.  Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880-1930BerkeleyUniversity of California Press, 2003.
Bohrer, Frederick. Orientalism and Visual Culture: Imagining Mesopotamia in Nineteenth-Century EuropeCambridgeCambridge University Press, 2003.
Clifford, James. "On Orientalism." In The Predicament of Culture: 20th-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, 255-76. CambridgeCambridge University Press, 1988.
DjebarAssiaWomen of Algiers in Their Apartment. Trans. Marjolijn de Jager. Charlottesville and LondonUniversity of Virginia Press, 1992.
Grigsby, Darcy GrimaldoExtremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary FranceNew Haven and LondonYale University Press, 2002.
———. "Orients and Colonies: Delacroix's Algerian Harem." In The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, 69-87. Cambridge and New YorkCambridge University Press, 2001.
Lewis, Bernard. "Revolt of Islam." New YorkerNov. 19 2001, 50-63.
Melman, Billie. Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918: Sexuality, Religion and WorkLondon: Macmillan, 1992. Reprint, 1995.
Nochlin, Linda. "The Imaginary Orient." In Politics of Vision; Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society, 33-59. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Peirce, Leslie Penn. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman EmpireNew YorkOxfordOxford University Press, 1993.
Porterfield, Todd. The Allure of Empire; Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798-1836PrincetonPrinceton University Press, 1998.
Prochaska, David. "Art of Colonialism, Colonialism of Art: The Description de l'Egypte (1809-1828)." L'esprit créateur 34 (1994): 69-91.
Rosenthal, Donald.  Orientalism; the near East in French Painting, 1800-1880RochesterN.Y.Memorial Art Gallery of the Unversity of Rochester, 1982.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New  York: Random House, 1978.
Schwartz, Joan, and James Ryan, eds. Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical ImaginationLondon: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A ReaderNew YorkColumbia University Press, 1994.

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