In the midst of a time of enormous change in notions of history, identity, narrative and art, Delacroix painted a picture of the East that incorporated and responded to the impact of these changes in the politics, philosophies and culture of his milieu. The question of Eugène Delacroix and Orientalism embraces a host of ambiguities and contradictions raised by these changes. These ambiguities and contradictions in turn embrace issues in Delacroix's art and the history of Orientalism.
No survey of Orientalist art would disregard Delacroix and in particular, his Women of Algiers, an icon in the field. Yet Delacroix's paintings stand apart from those of his contemporaries in their unique mix of quintessential mid-nineteenth-century orientalist ideas and the artist's aesthetic discourse. He presents his own "other". Sorting out this puzzle in Delacroix's art reveals his disciplined mix of conservative and radical views, of tradition and innovation. Delacroix played with the culture of his time, and of art history, the Renaissance, Baroque and classicism, vying with them and embracing them simultaneously rather than opposing them. In order to discern this network of relationships a number of assumptions need to be uncovered.
This dissertation seeks to re-insert Delacroix and his orientalist work in the context of his own time. While this discussion integrates the dominant concerns and beliefs that fed orientalist thought - a turning away from the prevailing notion that classical origins exist in Greece and Rome, chief among them - it will examine what is unique and what is typical about Delacroix's orientalist paintings and consequently, his relationship to Romanticism, Classicism and Modernism. This study does not seek to only place him in his time nor does it claim that his orientalist work is simply a response to the conventions of his time but rather to root the work in his cultural milieu in order to discern specific qualities of his orientalist work that further illuminate his larger endeavor to reinvigorate the classical tradition. Both Delacroix and Orientalism elicit questions about nineteenth-century definitions of the hero, the female, a nation, the past and ultimately relationships of power.
Delacroix's earliest eastern images spring from literature, in particular, that of Lord Byron. Chapter II, "A Pretext: Literary Orientalism" discusses these paintings and the evolution of orientalist literature beginning with "The One Thousand and One Nights." The influence of this literature on the construction of lasting images in art as well as politics and society are addressed. The chapter examines the artist's illustrations to Byron's work, most famously Death of Sardanapalus.
Chapter III, "A Context: Contemporary Orientalism" begins with consideration of Delacroix's treatment of current events in the East and their similarity to his literary images. Reviewing briefly the Greek War of Independence, a cause championed by Byron, and its impact on Parisian society. The chapter focuses on the issues of the academic and political debate and the French colonization of Algeria in tandem with analyses of The Sultan of Morocco, Fanatics of Tangiers, and most famously, Women of Algiers.
Chapter IV, "A Subtext: The Other in History's Symbols and Cycles" addresses the effect of these Orientalist studies on the contemporary reconsideration of history, specifically as illustrated in Delacroix's public murals at the Palais Bourbon and the Palais de Luxembourg. Delacroix's placement of the East in his Western cultural continuum - as seen in these murals - in some way, presents Delacroix's summation, tribute, and critique of the historical as well as literary and contemporary perspectives.