Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement
For the European artist of the 19th century and early 20th century the journey to the North Africa was inspirational in the manner of the classical pilgrimage to Italy. A turning-point in the life of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) came in 1831, He left Paris for Morocco travelling to Marseilles by road and then making the journey to Tangier by naval frigate, arriving in January 1832. He accompanied a French diplomat named Charles de Mornay, sent to conclude a treaty with Moulay Abd-er-Rahman, the Sultan of Morocco (France had conquered neighboring Algeria the year before and did not want any Moroccan interventions in its new colony). He subsequently returned home by way of Algiers and Spain. The imagination of the colourist bathed in the splendours of southern sunshine and broadened its vision by experience of the colourful picturesqueness of Oriental life. The painting Femmes d'Alger "The Women of Algiers" (1834) is an example of:
The millieu of the painting entails two spaces:
- The imaginary,
Delacroix worked starting from several drafts: first of all interiors of apartments in Oran, then a draft of the woman on the left, and finally, a sketch of the two women on the right-hand side. The "Women of Algiers" are represented in a simple naturalistic way. Three women are seated upon a luxurious oriental carpet. They are wearing rich tunics of embroidered silk, with pantalons (sarouels marocain) cut off below the knee. The woman on the left leans on some large cushions. The Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) purchased a print of the painting and commented on the sense of melancholy which pervades,
« Dans l'esprit un sillon profond de mélancolie, »
the heart of all his works, and noting how,
« Cette mélancolie respire jusque dans les femmes d'Alger, son tableau le plus coquet et le plus fleuri. »
It is notable for its use of complementary colours in adjoining areas of canvas; appearance of textiles; and the direction of lighting onto surfaces. A large patch of reflected light falls on the tiled wall of the interior and luminous shadows on the head and body of the girl sitting in the centre foreground. Reflected light and luminous shadows tend to appear as mid-tone colours: "demiteints". There is a further reflection from the mirror in the background. In some respects the presentation is theatrical, nevertheless, it represents a departure from the Orientalism imagined by the bourgeois Parisian, insofar as the women are not so conspicuously in costume or wearing jewellery: a stereotype. It would later by taken as a point of reference by the Impressionist group of painters. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), who as a young man was nicknamed "Delacroix blond", loved this canvas as
"The most beautiful painting in the world".
The white embroidered blouse worn by the girl on the right has a tiny sprigged design of pink and green: a little flower and a few leaves. Where the strong light falls across the front of the girl both pink and green appear dark and almost indistinguishable in contrast to the white. In the area of shade cast by her arm, the design shows fresh clear colours at the same mid-tone pitch as the luminous yellowish grey of her shadowed blouse. That is to say, when the tonal contrast is at its strongest the colour is diminished; conversely when the tones are equal the colour contrast becomes clear. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) remarked that the colour 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, and then one is consequently drunk."
« Vous entrent dans l’œil comme un verre de vin dans le gosier, et on en est tout de suite ivre. »
The painting is in the collection of the Musée Du Louvre, Paris. Delacroix presented another version: Femmes d'Alger dans leur intérieur to the 1849 Salon, the composition of which is almost identical, although the setting is less elaborate (although still obviously staged), and with the women servant concealed, but still there and attentive. Alfred Bruyas purchased this version, which is now in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.