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Work Interior of an Arab School in Constantine

Department of Prints and Drawings: 19th century

Intérieur d'école arabe à Constantine

Prints and Drawings
19th century

Author(s):
Prat Louis-Antoine

In 1846 Théodore Chassériau went to Algeria for two months, at the invitation of Ali ben Ahmed, the Caliph of Constantine. He brought back a large number of drawings and watercolors that inspired much of his later work. The scene shown here is typical of the interest that 19th-century European artists showed in oriental subjects.

A timeless image

Images of Koranic schools in Muslim countries have become commonplace on television in recent years. Nothing seems to have changed since the 19th century in the depiction of this type of scene. Chassériau added notes to his drawing, describing the children as "open-mouthed, with bobbing heads," busily reciting verses of the Koran. The low-ceilinged room with ogival arches is lit by colored glass lamps. Observed in Constantine in 1846, this type of scene persists to the present day.

A stay in Algeria

In 1845 Chassériau painted a large portrait of the Caliph of Constantine, Ali ben Ahmed, on horseback and surrounded by his escort (Musée National du Château de Versailles). The two men got on well, and the caliph invited the artist to visit him in Algeria the following year. The French conquest was not yet over but the caliph had already rallied to France. Chassériau arrived in Philipeville about 11 May, visited Constantine and the hinterland from 12 May to 12 June, and spent a month in Algiers, leaving on 25 July. The journey gave him an opportunity to make dozens of drawings and watercolors, particularly of the natives, who delighted him with their proud bearing and exotic features. He focused particularly on the Arab men and Jewish women (the only women that a European man could see unveiled).

Orientalism

Chassériau's brief stay in Algeria in 1846 was a revelation for him, just as Delacroix's stay in Morocco had been for him in 1832. The oriental light prompted Chassériau to use paler, more vibrant colors, and the beauty of the people he saw brought to mind the persistence of classical antiquity in modern times. When he returned to Paris, he produced dozens of small paintings on oriental subjects, which were very much in vogue at the time and fairly easy to sell: magnificent Arab horses, sumptuously attired Jewish women, Arab merchants, and so on. He became one of the most important representatives of this tendency in French painting, also illustrated by the work of Delacroix, Dauzats, Decamps, and Fromentin, and subsequently by that of Renoir and Matisse.

Bibliography

L.-A. Prat, Musée du Louvre, Inventaire général des dessins. Ecole française : Dessins de Théodore Chassériau 1819-1856, Paris, 1988, tome I, n 1681.
L.-A. Prat, Chassériau. Un autre romantisme. Exposition Paris, Strasbourg, New-York, 2002-2003, n 146.

Technical description

  • Théodore Chassériau (Santo Domingo, 1819-Paris, 1856)

    Interior of an Arab School in Constantine

    1846

  • Graphite pencil with watercolor highlights on paper

    H. 30.7 cm; W. 36.8 cm

  • Baron Arthur Chassériau bequest, 1934

    4024348

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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