Eugène Delacroix was a French Romantic artist regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. The 19th-century French painters, including Delacroix, loved Orient. We can even say that “Orientalism” was a genre of the 19th-century Academic art depicting the Middle East and North Africa. Everything started with Napoleon and his ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798–1801, which stimulated great public interest in Egyptology. The artists’ interest in this exotic, colorful and mysterious world didn’t stop until the first decades of the 20th-century.
What was typical in such images was portraying the Orient as exotic, colorful and sensual, not to mention stereotyped. The works typically concentrated on Oriental Islamic, Hebraic, and other Semitic cultures, as those were the ones visited by artists as France became more engaged in North Africa. Lounging odalisques became very popular while other scenes, especially in genre painting, were seen as either closely comparable to their equivalents set in modern-day or historical Europe.
Here we present couple of Delacroix images of the Orient. Be careful, you can fall in love with this colors!
The Death of Sardanapalus
The Death of Sardanapalus was inspired by the work of another Romantic, the poet Lord Byron. Here we see an apotheosis of cruelty. The composition, all reds and golds, portrays the holocaust of the legendary Assyrian king, destroying his possessions before committing suicide. The insurgents are attacking his castle; all is lost; stretched out on a sumptuous bed at the summit of an immense pyre, Sardanapalus orders eunuchs and palace officers to cut the throats of his women, his pages, and even his favourite dogs and horses; none of the objects that have served his pleasure are to survive him. His women are placed on a level with his horses and dogs. The mixture of sex, violence, lassitude and exoticism ran through much of the French Orientalist painting.
An odalisque was a chambermaid or a female attendant in a Turkish seraglio, particularly the court ladies in the household of the Ottoman sultan. In popular use, the word odalisque may also refer to a mistress, concubine or paramour of a wealthy man. During the 19th century, odalisques became common fantasy figures in Orientalism, being featured in many erotic paintings from that era.
The Women of Algiers
In 1832, Delacroix finally visited what is now Algeria, recently conquered by the French, and Morocco, as part of a diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Morocco. He was greatly struck by what he saw, and compared the North African way of life to that of the Ancient Romans, and continued to paint subjects from his trip on his return to France. Like many later Orientalist painters, he was frustrated by the difficulty of sketching women (as they were closed in their quarters), and many of his scenes featured Jews or warriors on horses. However, he was apparently able to get into the women’s’ quarters or harem of a house to sketch what became Women of Algiers; only few later harem scenes had this claim to authenticity.
Jewish Wedding in Morocco
Delacroix based this work on the notations of his visual memories, a description of which was written in Morocco in one of his notebooks: “The Jewish wedding. Moors and Jews, at the entry. The two musicians. The violinist; thumb in air, the underside of the other hand very shaded, light behind, the haik around his head transparent in places; white sleeves, shadow behind. The violinist; seated on his heels and on the gelabia. The body of the guitar on the player’s knee; very dark near the waist, red vest with brown notes, blue behind the neck. Shirt sleeves turned back up to the bi-ceps; green paneling beside him; a wart on the neck, short nose. Beside the violin, a pretty Jewish woman; vest, sleeves, gold and aramanthine”.
The Fanatics of Tangier
Delacroix witnessed this event through the shutters in Tangier or Meknes. The subject is difficult to understand, and Delacroix offered an explanation in the brochure for the 1838 Salon: “These fanatics are called Issaouis, after their founder Ben Issa. At certain times of year, they meet outside towns; then, their enthusiasm excited by prayers and wild cries, they enter into a veritable state of intoxication, and, spreading through the streets, perform a thousand contortions, and even dangerous acts.”
The Tiger Hunt
The artist’s journey through North Africa gave him an inspiration for all his life. Here representation of movement and violence is reinforced by the bright, intense lighting directed on to a few details selected for their significance, in particular the tiger and the fabrics of the clothes animated by the rapid gestures of the men who are attacking the wild beast. Delacroix created couple of paintings of hunting.