Women of Algiers is simply one of the most famous paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). It captures his rejection of Neoclassical style which emphasized formal clarity, intricate details, and flawlessly smooth textures. In contrast, Delacroix became the standard bearer of Romanticism. This style has fluid, expressive brushwork, bold colors, intricate compositions, high contrasts of light and dark, and expressive poses and gestures. Women of Algiers is one of many Delacroix paintings that shows how Delacroix mastered this style.
In 1832-33, Eugene Delacroix accompanied the Duc de Mornay’s diplomatic mission to Morocco as its official visual documentarian. A largely self-taught artist, Delacroix was entranced by the sensualism and exoticism of Morocco. Consequently, he obtained special permission to enter a harem and paint its odalisques (“oda” means a room in a Turkish harem).
The patterns in Moorish clothing and interiors intrigued Delacroix. The three harem women in Women of Algiers are languorous and sultry; the African woman on the right, alert and attentive, averts her glance as if she has just seen something of interest. The air surely smells of incense, flowers, and smoke from the hookah. As a result, the room feels intimate and cloistered.
Like many famous painters, Delacroix painted the traditional reclining nude. His, in the left foreground of Women of Algiers, is a drastic contrast with a Neoclassical version, Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (1780-1867). It, too, has references to the exotic with lush fabrics, the fan of peacock feathers, a jeweled headdress, and a hookah. Despite these Romantic details, Grande Odalisque is largely Neoclassical with its exact forms and lines, brushstroke-less surfaces, and fine details.
Delacroix paintings influenced subsequent painters including Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Matisse. By placing complementary colors next to each other to intensify their effects, Delacroix’s use of color sparked a revolution that is still ongoing.
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