The Women of Algiers  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Women of Algiers (In Their Apartment) is an 1834 oil on canvas painting by Eugène Delacroix. It is located in the Louvre, Paris, France.

The painting is notable for its sexual connotations; it depicts Algerian concubines of a harem. It also depicts opium, which often accompanied paintings of prostitutes. In the 19th century, it was known for its sexual content and its orientalism. The painting served as a source of inspiration to the later impressionists, and a series of 15 paintings and numerous drawings by Pablo Picasso in 1954.

Harem scenes in paintings and books

Harem scenes in paintings and books were very popular in the time of Delacroix's The Women of Algiers. Orientalism reached its first high point during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign of 1798, the year in which Delacroix was born. A further high point followed the French enthusiasm for all things Greek during the Greek revolution in 1821-30, during which time Victor Hugo authored the volume of poems Les Orientales and Delacroix contributed two paintings, The Massacre at Chios (1824) and Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Messolonghi[1] (1826), a forerunner of his most famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1830).

European men made the Harem out to be a kind of plush private bordello; this painting has more than a little of this notion in it. The problem for European artists was that no European could obtain access to a Harem. Their fantasy depictions of it were therefore obviously pure inventions and often hardly believable. (see Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1876 Pool in a Harem, for example) In contrast, Delacroix could rely upon his own eyes, which lends his work a special heft, believability and authority.

Nevertheless this painting reflects anything but reality, but rather presents a mixture of observation and generally accepted European conventions. Other than the black slave, who appears to be leaving the room, the women are conspicuous in their luxurious idleness. In reality, however, the Harem would be teeming with children and all kinds of activities- the women would have been in now way alone and idly awaiting the return of their man. This is even more amazing as Delacroix himself noted in his journal that children were not to be overlooked. The natural and domestic setting thus becomes a bordello, such as would have been easy to find in Paris.

Therefore Delacroix did not reproduce reality, but his own fantasy, supported by observation. He referred to sketches he had made on site, but freely elaborated upon them. Moreover it obviously depicts white women; the one on the right in the finished painting, who bears a definite resemblance to the woman sketched on site, is known to be a Parisian model and long acquaintance of Delacroix's. White women as slaves in Islamic harems had long inspired European fantasies, right up to the middle of the 20th century with the especially successful Angelique novels, in which the Arabian rulers are portrayed as dark and sinister.

The women are presented as objects of desire, more or less willing, at the mercy of the whims of their possessors, and awaiting to be allowed or forced to serve him. Considering the repressive sexual mores of the 19th and early 20th centuries this fantasy, which purports to give an authentic account of Islam, appears completely comprehensible; even today it is still often projected upon Oriental standards and, for instance, appears in historical films with or without documentary pretensions.

Of course a Harem is also associated with empire; an excess of women on one side must be obtained by a dearth thereof on the other. Empire is connected to power, and the ...

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Women of Algiers" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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