The Women of Algiers (In Their Apartment), Oil on Canvas, 1834, 180 x 229cm (70.9” x 90.2” approx.) The Louvre, (You know perfectly well where it is.)
My artist friend, Matt, is a major fan of this painter and quite rightly, too. Like Courbet, Delacroix was a bridge between the stodgy old artistic world of idealized classicism and… well, us. Here in the western world pretty much everything we admire and enjoy arises from the explosion of modern art onto the world scene. And modern art got its nudge from Delacroix and a very few others like him.
Delacroix understood very well that great art must be either evocative or provocative; it could not be content to merely record. Delacroix was greatly influenced by the Orientalist movement in art. To nineteenth century artists, the Orient meant northern Africa and the Middle East. Early in his career Delacroix rendered paintings which were reflections of the Turkish experience, things he imagined from what others had created before him. But in 1832 he traveled to Morocco on what at least one writer has called the voyage of the century, and his mind blew up. The mature artist arose from that trip. His style changed, his attitude changed and the modern world was forever influenced by how he incorporated those changes into his work.
His colors became more representative as he realized the average man in the street dressed more nearly like a classical Roman than like the harlequin-costumed figures of more common renderings. He invented a new technique for himself called flochetage (from “floss”) which used juxtaposed brush strokes to a shimmering, reflective effect, like that seen on the cushions above. It made them richer to the eye, and allowed the inner artist of the viewer to see these ladies sinking back into them, slowly drowsing into an opium fog as the day progressed.
There are many Orientalist paintings which are more vibrant, prettier, and arguably more complex by other artists. But they remain mere illustrations while this goes beyond and makes us a special visitor to the seraglio that hardly any outsider ever gets to see. (Supposedly, this is the harem of a converted Christian Delacroix knew who was still European enough to want to brag about all his women, so he let Delacroix visit when other Muslims would not.) Delacroix leaves it to us to judge how sexy this is. His women are not houris awaiting an opportunity to enchant. They are kept things whose lives are boring beyond belief, who seek the escape that an opium haze can provide. It is at heart a sad image, I think, but I am layering what I see with twenty-first century eyes. To be fair, though, they are eyes that are heavily influenced by Delacroix himself.
Delacroix influenced everyone from Manet through Matisse through Picasso. Cezanne was not a fan. He felt Orientalism was a dead end artistically, but that only proves you can’t please everybody.
But Delacroix also influenced others beyond the world of canvas and museums. Here is what he said, “I began to make something acceptable on my voyage to Africa only when I forgot enough of the little details to evoke in my paintings just the striking and poetic side; prior to that point I had been pursued by a love of precision, which the majority mistakes for the truth.” He understood that it is not necessary to paint a whole clock if only the hands will do. In every mature art form, be it music, acting, writing, we are shown again and again that less is more. With all our science and all our language we are still not, as a species, capable of enough words to fully describe God’s tiniest creation. We rely on common recognitive factors between each other to communicate. What evokes the greatest recognition; what provokes the greatest passion? The real art lies not in laying out the whole of a thing like a clever mirror, but rather in finding that smallest part of a thing that still carries the whole character of what it represents. The modern artist is less interested in the picture of a wall than in finding the dot he can flick against a board and have the world say “WALL!” with no other prompt; he wants the DNA of that wall.
It is July 4th weekend here in theUSA and everyone will be celebrating and all the snollygosters will cackle and rant about Freedom as if it were a concrete thing that can be packaged by Proctor & Gamble. It cannot, of course. Freedom is an abstract thing. It means different things to different people and it is impossible to render a single image to which the rest of the world says “FREEDOM!” with no further prompt.
Impossible unless you are a genius like Delacroix. The picture follows below. Have a safe holiday, everybody. Remember that freedom is for everyone and it’s only abstract if you don’t have it.
Liberty Leading the People, Oil on Canvas, 1830, 260 x 325cm (102.4” x 128”) Still the Louvre (Yes, you should go there.)