(b. 1798, Charenton-Saint-Maurice, d. 1863, Paris)

The Women of Algiers

Oil on canvas, 180 x 229 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The capture of Algiers in 1830 had given France the Sultan of Morocco as a neighbour. Louis Philippe's government decided to send him an ambassador extraordinary, the Comte de Mornay; the latter wished to take an official artist with him and chose Eugene Delacroix. The mission left Toulon on 11 January 1832, landed at Tangiers on the 25 January, travelled through a part of Morocco, and returned via Oran and Algiers.

During his visit to this country, Delacroix witnessed spectacles belonging to a noble and primitive way of life which provided material for his art until he died; but he had not been allowed to enter the jealously guarded harems of the Moslems. It was the chief harbour engineer at Algiers who persuaded one of the port officials, a former reis or owner of privateers, to allow Delacroix into his own harem.

In these few hours Delacroix did several watercolour sketches, some of which are in the Louvre. Using them as a basis, he painted a large picture on his return, and exhibited it in the 1834 salon. He wanted to show the dark tones of flesh and the subdued colours in the warm half-light of the harem.

In 1849 he painted another smaller version of the same subject, now in the Musée de Montpellier. Here the colours are softer and the atmosphere more intimate; it has a note of nostalgia absent from the 1834 Salon picture, which is still full of his first impressions, and which already foreshadows Renoir. The latter artist was well aware of this relationship; in 1872 he painted a large picture inspired by Delacroix's canvas and called Les Parisiennes habillées en Algériennes (Tokyo Museum). He had already done an Odalisque and exhibited it in the 1870 Salon. (Chester Dale Collection, New York.)

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 8 minutes):
Gioacchino Rossini: L'Italiana in Algeri, overture