Delacroix’s Femmes d’Algers dans leur apartement

At his weekend visit to Peter Templer’s, Nick once again meets Peter’s sister Jean, now Jean Duport.  “Once she had reminded me of Rubens’s Chapeau de Paille.  Now for some reason––though there was not much physical likeness between them––I thought of the woman smoking the hookah in Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement.” (AW 58)

Femmes d’Algers dans leur apartement Eugene Delacroix, 1834 color on canvas, 71 X 90 in Louvre Museum photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Femmes d’Algers dans leur apartement
Eugene Delacroix, 1834
color on canvas, 71 X 90 in
Louvre Museum
photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was the pre-eminent French Romantic painter of the nineteenth century, highly regarded by critics in his own time and continuously celebrated into the present.   The term Romanticism applied to Delacroix’s work,  and indeed almost defined by it,  refers to its rejection of neo-classical ideas of stability and clarity of composition and of individual forms in favor movement,  complexity and spatial ambiguity.

Delacroix largely avoided classical motifs in favor of scenes depicting the exoticism of North Africa and the near east, and from this interest arose his Femmes d’Algers of 1834.  His historical paintings feature not the battles of antiquity but moments in more recent European history and in romantic literature when the heroic masses could be depicted as struggling against the tyranny of their oppressors.  Thus, his most well-known painting is Liberty Leading the People, an homage to the July Revolution of 1830 against the reign of Charles X.

Nick compares Jean to an awkward,  virginal saint in an early Flemish drawing, to Ruben’s sly cousin or wife, and to a hookah-smoking Algerienne, whom he says does not actually resemble Jean. These do not add up to a picture of Jean but to a picture of a confounded Nick, who cannot seem to get a handle on his fascination for Jean.  The implication is that his fascination is not with her appearance at all but with her sexual allure, an implication that becomes more explicit as he moves from the saint to the exotic woman with the hookah.

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