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Death of Sardanapalus

Death of Sardanapalus (1824)

Eugène Delacroix

Perhaps the most famous of the Orientalist painters, Delacroix traveled to Morocco and Algeria in 1832 as part of an ambassadorial delegation to the Moroccan sultanate. Though Delacroix had treated non-Western subjects in paintings previous to these travels (most notably this 1824 painting based on Byron’s play Sardanapalus), Delacroix’s three-month journey to North Africa had a profound effect on his art and the cadre of Orientalist painting.

Delacroix, 1834

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834)

Eugène Delacroix

One of the most famous Romantic painters and artists of his era, Eugène Delacroix was also one of the first artists to travel to North Africa as part of an ambassadorial delegation to the Moroccan sultanate following the French invasion of Algeria in 1830. Although the women in the painting are not themselves veiled, it is the painting’s story and veiling motifs that make it arguably the most famous Orientalist painting of the nineteenth century.  Delacroix’s travels took him to Spain, Morocco, and Algeria, where, after several failed attempts to draw Muslim women and visit a harem, he gained unprecedented access to a private Moorish household in Algiers.  The painting is a composition of sketches Delacroix made of the a Moorish merchant’s female family members who awaited the painter  in a receiving room dressed in their finest clothes. The women are depicted waiting expectantly as a black servant in the far right of the image draws back a curtain as if unveiling the painting and the women’s private apartment to the viewer. The high window in the upper left hand corner lets a beam of light into the room, casting the seated women in a natural spotlight. The image, which literally and metaphorically peeks behind the “veil” of Muslim women’s privacy, was well-received by French audiences in 1834 and influenced generations of painters to travel abroad for exotic artistic inspiration.

Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy

The White Slave (1888)

Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte de Nouy

In de Nouy’s painting , the white slave appears as a courtesan of the Ottoman empire, enjoying the luxurious life of the harem as she smokes and snacks on an array of delicacies. In the background, we see two black slaves working in the background,  one stops while squeezing out a cloth to gaze at the white slave who is partially obscured by the curtain separating her from the household chores. De Nouy’s attention to detail in this and other works can be attributed to his travels in the Middle East, and he often took time to painstakingly reproduce the designs and patterns he saw abroad in his Orientalist paintings.

Ingres, 1814

The Grande Odalisque (1814)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Though he never traveled to the “Orient,” Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, a French Classical Painter, nonetheless produced many paintings depicting veiled women that enhanced and influenced the image of the seductive  and sensual Orient.  Ingres’ most famous images of Oriental women are painted in the nude or in a state of undress, such as his famous Grand Odalisque from 1814. Ingres’ odalisque (the term for a female Turkish servant) was criticized for her elongated and anatomically incorrect proportions—scholars say she has between one and three vertebrae too many in her spine. Laying undressed on a pile of clothes, the odalisque’s veil-like headdress covering the her hair functions as an exoticizing detail that marks her as a woman from a foreign land.  This exoticism legitimizes her nudity as in this period of painting it mainly subjects from antiquity, such as Venus, the goddess of love, were depicted in the nude.

Ingres, 1862

The Turkish Bath (1862)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Ingres painted the Turkish Bath at the end of his life, five years before his death. The image is one of Ingres’ most erotic, and the scene of women bathing together was considered too risqué for its original French patron and was returned to Ingres before being  sold to the Turkish ambassador Hamdi Bey and later French patrons before entering the Louvre’s collection in the early twentieth century. The image, with its cylindrical frame, creates a peep-hole with which the viewer can gaze upon a scene where dozens of women, many of them wearing veils, bathe and converse together in the intimate setting of the Turkish bath. In Turkey and across the Middle East and north Africa, such baths, or hammams , were common destinations for women to congregate to socialize as well as bathe together, but the homoerotic depiction of women bathing transforms what was a social space for friends into a lush, imagined sexual fantasy.

Matisse, 1922

Odalisque With Red Trousers (1922)

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse’s painting of an odalisque clothed in a veil, sheer open blouse, and bright red trousers is part of the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou of modern art in Paris, France. Matisse’s odalisque is positioned in the middle of the image, the position of her arms and legs opening her chest and torso to the viewer indicating the figure is below the sight line of the painting’s observer. Though comfortably seated in the brightly-colored room, the odalisque appears lost in flight, looking down and past the viewer, her evasion of the viewer’s glance decidedly less open then the blouse or veil pulled above her head that show off her face and chest.

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