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.
Algerian Women in Their Apartment, 1834.
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)
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863)
La Vierge du Sacré-Cœur 1821
Musée National Eugène Delacroix, Paris
Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Moroccan Caid Visiting his Tribe.
Jewish Wedding in Morocco (1839-41)
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.