Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1834, oil on canvas, 180 × 229 cm (Musée du Louvre) speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


Additional resources


Orientalism in Nineteenth-Century Art on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Romanticism on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Jennifer W. Olmsted,  “The Sultan’s Authority: Delacroix, Painting, and Politics at the Salon of 1845,” The Art Bulletin vol. 91, no. 1 (2009), pp. 83-106. 

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a painting that’s usually in the Louvre in Paris. This is Delacroix’s “The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] We’re looking at the inside of a harem, an area in a Muslim household reserved for women.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] But seen through the lens of a Western European.

Dr. Harris: [0:22] On a trip to North Africa, he did see a harem briefly, but nevertheless, this is still very much a Western fantasy at a time when, in Paris, there was huge interest in French imaginings and fantasies of North Africa.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Part of what fueled that interest was France’s military forays into North Africa. France had violently seized Algeria. In fact, the reason that the artist went to Morocco and then briefly to Algeria was as part of a diplomatic mission.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] So, a place of indulgence, a place of luxury.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] A place of leisure, an idea that the French accorded to all peoples that they saw as inferior to them a kind of laziness.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] This was a culture, to the French, that didn’t progress the way things did in Europe. It was a place where time stood still.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] Orientalism, in its narrowest sense, refers to a European or Anglo-American view of North Africa, perhaps the Middle or Near East. It was a look at cultures that were seen as exotic and slightly dangerous. It’s important to remember that this is before the era of photography.

[1:30] So in the absence of photography, paintings like this were seen as a kind of documentation, even though we understand it as a construction of the desires of the French public.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] We see three figures seated on the ground, relaxing, smoking, not interacting with each other. The light streams in from the left. We feel as though we’re looking at something that we’re not really allowed to look at.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Ours is a privileged view.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] We do have one standing figure, who seems to be pulling back the curtain to reveal these figures. This figure has much darker skin. We often see Black figures in European paintings from this time to set off what the French saw as the greater beauty of the lighter-skinned figures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] So here we have the only active figure pulling back the curtain, who might then be seen in the role of a servant. The surface is sumptuous. The women are dressed in these fine fabrics; strewn below them are these extraordinary carpets and tiling. There’s this cacophony of pattern and color.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] We can see North African furnishings. We can see what looks like Arabic script. Everything about their jewelry, the textiles, the interior would have been fascinating to the audiences in Paris. The composition is interesting, because there is no single focal point. The three women who are seated on the ground equally draw my attention. There’s no action taking place.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] There’s no narrative.

Dr. Harris: [2:57] Just this profound sense of languorousness. But the color, the color is where we really see all of Delacroix’s energy going. The oranges, and greens, and blues, and purples just vibrate against one another. The surface seems almost jewel-like.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Look, for example, at the patterned green cloth. If you look at the shadows, that green is contrast against red. The shadows are the complementary color of the green.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] Delacroix’s thinking about complementary colors, about the way that colors blend in our eye when they’re next to one another. So instead of thinking about chiaroscuro, of the movement of light to dark in a traditional academic way, he’s adding color to the shadows and to the light.

[3:41] The contours of the figures, the outlines, are not precise. There’s a softness to the edges of forms. In so many places we can see the artist’s brushwork. For example, in that gauzy white fabric worn by the figure in the center.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] The painting is dizzying in its color, in its pattern, in its forms.

Dr. Harris: [4:00] And all of this feeling very exotic and compelling to an audience in Paris in the 1830s.

[4:06] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment," in Smarthistory, September 3, 2021, accessed June 15, 2024,