Women of Algiers
Contemporary art critic Theophile Gautier explained why he felt Women of Algiers conveyed ideas:
"An idea in painting has not the slightest relation to an idea in literature. A hand placed in a certain way, the fingers held apart or together in a certain style, a cast of folds, an inclination of the head, an attenuated or inflated contour, a marriage of colors, a coiffure of elegant strangeness, a piquant reflection, an unexpected light, a contrast of characters between different groups, form what we call an idea in painting. That is why the painting of the women of Algiers is full of idea..."
From La Presse (22 November 1836). Cited in Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 88.
Contemporary critic Théophile Thoré commented on Women of Algiers :
“This is the tranquil and contemplative life of the Orient….No doubt these women have imbibed opium or hashish. No doubt they are deluding themselves inwardly with some dream of the Prophet; but this is not affecting anything outside of them, save for the air of perfume surrounding their voluptuous bodies. And besides, there are the silvery silken fabrics, transparent as gauze, the dazzling tapestries, the incense burners and the narghiles; over all of this there reigns a harmony and haze that caresses the long black eyelashes of the women, who sway in their supple costumes. Before this fresh painting, we retreat, we breathe easily, we remain silent, we are afraid to waste our movements. It represents an immense contrast with the French character which has never dreamed of economizing movement and activity.”
Cited in Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution 1815-1848 (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 368.
Contemporary critic Gabriel Laviron commented on The Women of Algiers in his review of the 1834 Salon:
“In seeing this picture, one really understands the boring life of these women who do not have a serious idea, nor a useful occupation to distract themselves from the eternal monotony of this prison in which they are enclosed.”
Cited in Todd Porterfield, The Allure of Empire. Art in the Service of French Imperialism 1798-1836 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 134.
Todd Porterfield comments on the initial reception of The Women of Algiers:
“Even if The Women of Algiers had been a conscious attempt by Delacroix to paint a sympathetic picture of his Algerian subject by, for instance, insisting on the women’s cleanliness, it would not have mattered to his public. Gustave Planche, who like all the other commentators, repeated clichés about the harem, saw the figures full of ‘sluggishness and nonchalance.’ While proclaiming that Delacroix’s rendition was truthful, he also thanked the artist for omitting the women’s dirty fingernails. The critics’ previously informed knowledge about the Orient stepped in to insure the moralizing ‘truth’ about the picture, even when the artist had not offered it. There is here a will to authenticate on the part of Delaxroix’s public that was a fundamental aspect of the reception of Orientalist pictures since 1798. The relation of Delacroix’s artistic production to his knowledge of Orientalism illustrates the textual constrictions on perception, presentation, and reception of ideas about the East.”
Todd Porterfield, The Allure of Empire. Art in the Service of French Imperialism 1798-1836 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 135.
Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby situates Women of Algiers in the context of popular imagery and colonialism:
“[B]y 1834 the Algerian harem had also become a trafficked and derided space. Although Delacroix has been credited as the first artist to open the colony’s harem up to view, it is important to stress that the Algerian harem had already [in the popular press] been brutally unveiled and ridiculed….
And, against the crude exaggerated character of the [popular] prints, he produced a painting that was grand, magisterial, quiet, and elegant, as well as forthrightly declarative of its serious ethnographic and aesthetic credentials. 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. No matter that the Arabic script says nothing; its effect in the Parisian salon was to suggest a hard-won empirical expertise. 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.”
Darcy Grimalde Grigsby, “Orients and Colonies: Delacroix’s Algerian Harem,” in Beth S. Wright, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 81.