Work Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Department of Paintings: French painting
Women of Algiers in their Apartment
© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier
This monumental historical genre scene was inspired by Delacroix’s conviction that a lifestyle resembling that of the ancients was on the point of disappearing—an impression that stayed with him until he died. Preferring the romanticism of travels in North Africa to the artistic tradition of a sojourn in Italy, he believed that Civilization’s missing link was to be found in the Orient which, having exercised a certain appeal at the start of his career, overwhelmed him when he experienced it for himself. Here was material for “twenty generations of painters,” he said.
It’s beautiful! As it was in Homer’s time!
Delacroix left France for Morocco on January 11, 1832, two years after the conquest of Algiers. He was already famous as the painter of The Barque of Dante, The Death of Sardanapalus, and Liberty Leading the People. He traveled with Charles de Mornay, leader of a diplomatic delegation from King Louis Philippe to Sultan Moulay Abderrahman, whose support for the Algerian resistance threatened the continuation of French expansion in the west. On his return journey, he spent some time in Algiers. According to Philippe Burty (who drew on the accounts of the Comte de Mornay and Charles Cournault), Delacroix was granted his wish to enter a Muslim harem with the help of port engineer Victor Poirel. The term “harem” refers to the part of the house where the women of the family lived in seclusion; to avoid the possibility of intimate relationships, men—including family members—required permission to enter. The ambiguity surrounding Delacroix’s experience is maintained by the fact that he made no mention of children or of the situation and status of the harem’s occupants.
After lengthy consideration, he selected only two of the women he had sketched in the harem: Mouni Bensoltane, who had posed twice in different positions, was used for the voluptuous figure in the left corner, leaning on one elbow and facing the viewer; Zohra Bensoltane is the woman sitting cross-legged in the center, her face turned three quarters as she calmly converses with her companion on the right. A certain mystery shrouds these women, who may have been sisters, cousins, or wives of the same man.
Were they Muslims? Their Arabic names are not sufficient proof. Their sarouel pants (not traditional garb for Jewish women) provide better proof, as does the cursive phrase “Muhammad rasul Allah,” hastily inscribed on the ornately framed blue and white faience panel—though Delacroix may have added this afterwards. On the wall to the right of the mirror in Interior in Algiers (a watercolor in the Louvre), there is a vague sketch of the prophet’s sandals—a popular hagiographic icon, frequent in the homes of Muslim notables… but this may also have been a later addition.
The woman in the gynaeceum. That is woman as I understand her!
Delacroix observed the harem women at a distance, from the patio or the gallery leading to their apartment, through the open door. They sit at the end of the room, grouped around the brazier (kanoun) and the hookah, near a curtain suggestive of moments of privacy; the high faience plinth with its stylized floral motifs suggests the depth of the room. The Venetian mirror with its rocaille frame, the Murano glassware, the crystal, copper, and pewter ware on the shelf and behind the illuminated wooden niche doors all evoke the close links between Algiers and the ports of the Levant in the 18th century. All distance is abolished in this painting, in the foreground of which the three women sit between the shadows and the light, their bare arms, legs, and feet suggesting (though not proving) that it is summer in Algiers. Even in the late June heat, however, they sit or lie on Turkish-style deep pile rugs, weaves with Berber motifs, and “Scutari” velvet cushions that were no doubt usually stored away in the early spring.
In the center of the spiral composition is the brazier, whose faintly glowing embers cannot have been intended to keep the women warm. The painter added movement to the right-hand corner of his composition with a standing figure, from whom the seated women seem to expect something—perhaps the fumigations of incense that her turning movement suggests she is about to begin. Her dark skin and humble attire have been interpreted as reflecting the status of a servant—a supposition that is neither excluded nor proven. The seated women are dressed Algiers-style in fine chemises: plain white, flowered, or with contrasting matte and shiny textures. These are worn open at the front down to the knee, and hide the top of the full, mid-calf length satin and brocade sarouel pants. The woman on the left, whose belt is worn loose and away from the body, wears a “ghlila” (a waisted sleeveless jacket that flares over the hips) in garnet-colored velvet, decorated with braid and passementerie buttons, gold threads, sequins, coils of gold wire, and triangular appliqués under the breasts. The others each wear a “frimla”—a little bodice derived from the “ghlila” that covers the transparent chemise, supports the breasts, and holds the sleeves in place. Mouni also wears a more local item of female clothing in the form of the “fouta” that was worn by all married women and mothers—a long wrap skirt made of striped Tlemcen silk, tied around the hips to protect female fertility from the evil eye. The “fouta” worn by their lady’s companion is more Berber in style with its bright, crude colors. The women’s low necklines are embellished with trimmings; strings of pearls and gemstones adorn their necks. Their headgear is a “meherma”—a fringed, gold-threaded dark silk square of varied textures, folded into a triangle whose lower corners are crossed at the nape of the neck, then raised and knotted on the forehead. Arm bracelets and khalakheel (anklets), earrings, charm watches, rings on every finger… these jewelry items were rarely worn at the same time, except on special occasions. Signs of wealth, dignity, and elegance, they were also tokens of marital status.
Attention to detail and interpretation
The floor is covered in smooth tiles (instead of the original porous hexagonal floor tiles and polished cabochons). The women’s “babouches” (the oriental slippers that have fuelled so many fantasies) lie on the floor, slipped off to protect the precious carpets—a detail that gives the scene all its credibility.
The keen precision of the accessories, attitudes, costumes, decoration, and atmosphere—all sketched and noted during the painter’s visit, and supplemented by documentary material brought back from his travels or acquired in Paris—contributes to the overall coherence of the scene. The painting’s contrasting planes further distinguish the already varied forms, tones, lights, and materials; these finely-worked individual elements are unified by the spiral structure of the overall composition.
- BURTY Philippe, Lettres d'Eugène Delacroix 1815 - 1863, A. Quantin, Paris,1877.
- SERULLAZ Maurice, Mémorial de l'exposition Eugène Delacroix, E.M.N, Paris, 1963.
- JOHNSON Lee, The painting of Delacroix a critical catalogue, Clarendon Press, Oxford,1981-1989.
- JOBERT Barthélémy, Delacroix, Gallimard, Paris, 1997.
- HiILAIRE Michel , SERULLAZ Arlette, De Delacroix à Renoir l'Algérie des peintres, IMA /Hazan, Paris, 2003.
Eugène DELACROIX (Charenton-Saint-Maurice (Val-de-Marne), 1798 - Paris, 1863)
Women of Algiers in their Apartment
Salon of 1834
H. 1.80 m; W. 2.29 m
Acquired at the Salon of 1834 , 1834
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