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The Fanatics of Tangier:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Fanatics of Tangier is a prime example of the Romantic style of the early 19th century. Its chief exponent and unofficial leader was Eugène Delacroix. Romanticism arose in part as a reaction against the strict Neoclassical ideals of reason and order. By emphasizing instead the personal, emotional, or dramatic through the use of "exotic", literary, or historically remote subject matter, Romanticists expressed the revolutionary spirit of the age.
The painting is based on an event that was witnessed firsthand by the artist. In 1832, Delacroix traveled to Africa with the French ambassador, Comte de Mornay. While in Morocco, Delacroix observed the devotional exercises of the Isawas,1 a fanatical2 Muslim sect, as they thronged the streets of Tangier. Delacroix made a rapid sketch of these dervishes' actions, which is now in the Louvre. Later in the summer he executed a watercolor, from which this painting was made four or five years later.3 When exhibited, the work drew praise for its use of color, dramatic subject matter, and realistic treatment, but was generally criticized for its lack of finish, sketch-like quality, and small scale.

Tangier was an important meeting place for the Isawa dervishes, who were dedicated to poverty and chastity. They went from town to town performing and asking for alms. At certain times, they gathered outside the towns, working themselves into highly charged emotional states by means of prayer and dance. They then moved through the streets achieving a state of ecstasy through physical contortions and fervent cries.

Delacroix shared with other artists and writers of the time a fascination with dramatic, exotic, emotional subjects, far removed from the bourgeois banalities of France under Louis Philippe. During much of the 19th century, France played a major role in massive European colonial activity in Africa and Asia. The economic motives of securing raw materials and new markets for trade, as well as expanding national power, combined with cultural forces in providing what was viewed as a 'civilizing' mission. By showing North Africans and others as savage, violent, bizarre and even dangerous people who needed to be controlled by outside forces, art works like this supported French colonial ambitions. These images of faraway, so-called exotic people and places appealed to the French art audience who considered themselves civilized and orderly.
Prominently positioned in the scene are five frenzied men, who move barefooted into the street, forcing their way through the crowds. Our attention is captured by the central figure wearing the brilliant white shirt. His arms are raised over his head, his hair flies in the breeze, and his eyes blaze with intensity. On his right, two fanatics support a member of their group who appears to have swooned in the emotional excitement. Another figure has fallen to the ground at their feet.

The spectators are arranged in a semi-circle around the fanatics. The activity of the Isawas is in extreme contrast to the silent observers on the right who mark the composition like vertical pillars. Above them, two other witnesses, silhouetted against the sky, lean over to observe the scene from the top of the building. The gold flecks on their costumes glitter in the sunlight. The reactions of the onlookers range from quiet observation to curiosity and fear. Some attempt to move to safety while others protect their children from the crowds.

Although the painting was executed with sketchy brush strokes (many of the background figures are indicated only by a stroke or two of paint), it convincingly describes the costume and religious custom as witnessed and remembered by Delacroix. Behind the row of twisting figures is the leader of the procession, who is shown on horseback. He is followed by other fanatics who wave their arms in the air as they mill in the street. The child in the path of the fanatics has a shaved head except for a lock of hair by which Allah4 could pull him up to heaven. The movements of the central fanatics exaggerate the religious gestures of a devout Muslim at prayer.5 Women watch from traditional outposts on the terraces.
The dramatic activity of the scene is contained within a shallow, stage-like space. The demonstrative gesture and white shirt of the central figure focus draw attention to him. Diagonal lines formed by the arrangement of figures and the angles of the architecture enliven the scene. Our eyes are directed from left to right in a diagonal line from the fallen figure to the man in red. The rising and falling lines create a dynamic, turbulent feeling. Arms point in every direction, further moving our eyes about, giving us a vicarious experience of the event. Preventing total chaos is the stability provided by the vertical screen of buildings which form a backdrop, figures and architecture which define the sides, and the horizontal line formed by the division of the sky and architecture. In addition, the spectators form a semi-circle around the central figures, both focusing our attention on them and containing their energy.
Delacroix saw paintings as a bridge between the painter and the spectator, with brushstroke (which gave immediate contact by betraying the painter's presence) and color as the most important elements. He believed that when the tones are right the lines take care of themselves. With color, he created his forms and unified the painting, using line as a secondary device. Vivid reds, greens, yellow, and white punctuate the swirling activity set against a brilliant blue sky. Delacroix used these saturated, intense colors to create a mood of turbulent emotion, thereby dramatizing the composition. He activated the canvas by placing small strokes of bright color (like red) at intervals, which cause our eye to move and thus to create a sense of movement in the scene. (He was influenced by his contemporaries like Constable, who juxtaposed pure brushstrokes of color without blending them.) Also, by placing complementary colors (red and green) adjacent to each other (the blanket on the sheik's horse, the rugs on the building, and in many garments), Delacroix intensified each color. The brilliant colors are in sharp contrast to the surrounding white masonry and the white robes of the spectators.
The bright light of Morocco intensified Delacroix's feelings about the importance of color. In a journal entry of February, 1832, he wrote:
Here you will see a nature which in our country is always disguised; here you will feel the rare and precious influence of the sun which gives an intense life to everything.
Light falls in diagonal patterns across the white architecture, which in turn directs our attention back to the center of activity. Light selectively plays across the foreground, spotlighting the fanatics, while the witnesses are cast in shadow.

The chaos of the scene is in marked contrast to the placid sky with its few wispy clouds. The intense light evokes our imaginations to the point where we are invited to feel the heat of the day, to hear the cries of the fanatics, and to smell the dust and the perspiration of the teeming crowd. In the endless blue sky and white glowing forms of the architecture is a timeless quality that suggests these fanatics are just passing through a place that will endure forever.

The Fanatics of Tangier exemplifies the major characteristics of the Romantic style:
  • Its subject matter is "exotic," a by-product of French colonial activity in Africa.
  • It appeals to emotions more than intellect.
  • The loose, painterly brushstrokes make the surface of the paint itself exciting.
  • A dramatic moment is depicted.
  • Fantastic details are combined with an asymmetrical composition embellished with diagonal lines and intense color contrasts to achieve a heightened emotional response.
  • This is a personal interpretation of the artist's experience.
Although Delacroix pursued the academic style for a time, the more painterly style of his contemporaries (Gros, Gericault, and Constable) as well as that of Rubens, Veronese, and Michelangelo served his temperament better. He once stated,
If by Romanticism is meant the free expression of my personal feelings, my aloofness from the standardized type of paintings prescribed by the schools, and my dislike of academic formulas, I must confess that not only am I a Romantic, but I already was one at the age of fifteen.6
His first salon exhibit in 1822 was well-received, but later works were bitterly criticized for his use of brilliant color, subject matter, and free handling of paint, which were taken as a rejection of traditional French classicism. He found more acceptance after the mid-1830s, at which time he was established as a major painter of the Romantic movement in France. Delacroix contributed greatly to the struggle of the nonconforming artist against entrenched classicism and influenced an entire generation of younger artists (especially the Impressionists and Van Gogh).
Use on the following tours:
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • 19th- and 20th-Century Art
  • Spirituality and Art
  • People and Places
  • Techniques and Technology (examples of pentimenti)
  • Visual Elements

Delacroix's use of color was of great influence on later artists. Compare Delacroix's brushstrokes and hues to that of his precursors (Poussin, Rubens, Chardin) or his followers (the Impressionists, Manet, Van Gogh or Matisse).

Considering that both have a North African subject matter, compare the Romantic treatment of this work to that of the Academic treatment of Gérôme's The Carpet Merchant.

  1. The Isawas (also spelled Aissaouas), were disciples of the Marabout Sidi-Mohammed-ben-Aissa, who founded a religious sect in the 17th century in the nearby town of Meknes.
  2. Fanatical is used to describe the Isawas, a Muslim sect who practiced whirling and howling as religious acts and were considered to have supernatural powers.
  3. Delacroix worked intermittently for nearly two years on the composition before exhibiting it. The fact that he changed the composition by painting over certain areas is evidenced by the pentimenti (figures or objects that show through the overpainting years later. Example: the figure at the bottom of the right wall).
  4. "Allah" is the Islamic word for "God." (See footnote [5])
  5. Islam refers to the Muslim religion and to the lands where it is embraced. The supreme deity is Allah and its founder is Mohammed.
  6. Lipshultz, Sandra, Selected Works, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1988.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Eugène Delacroix, <i>The Fanatics of Tangier,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009