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: Three Paintings of North Africa by Delacroix


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Since the dramatic days of Abd-el Krim, in the mid nineteen-twenties, North Africa and its problems have been largely relegated to the back pages of the public mind. Now, however, with Allied hopes of a European invasion pinned so closely to that region, North Africa has become a subject of burning interest. So it is that one re-reads the history of the Roman Empire, of Carthage, and the Moors; wrestles with bizarre and difficult names, and pores over maps and globes in an attempt to reconstruct a picture of that part of the world where the United Nations may well make their first important stride toward victory in Europe. And so it is that one turns with renewed interest to paintings of North Africa, and to artists who have made them.Of the latter, none has conveyed more convincingly than Delacroix the spirit of the proud and colorful peoples of Morocco and the romantic beauty of their country. The chance of painting them might have been arranged for him by a particularly indulgent fate, so perfectly did the task suit his temperament and abilities. Rebelling against the pallidly classical style that had lately prevailed among French painters, Delacroix produced a series of brilliant and turbulent canvases that gave notice of a new, romantic epoch ahead. The note had already been sounded by Géricault in his Raft of the Medusa, but it was Delacroix who increased its volume and who foreshadowed, in his experiments with color, the Impressionist school. When, in 1832, he was appointed to accompany the Count of Mornay on an ambassadorial mission to the Sultan of Morocco, Delacroix began an adventure that was to furnish inspiration for his painting during the rest of his life.The institute is fortunate in being able to show, at this time, three canvases that were the fruit of hits inspiration: Côte Barbaresque, lent by Mrs. E. C. Lindley of New York; The Fanatics of Tangiers and the Collection of the Arabian Tax, lent by Louis W. Hill of Saint Paul, who has been unfailingly generous in sharing his Delacroix paintings with Minneapolis. All were formerly in the collection of James J. Hill.The earliest of the paintings is The Fanatics of Tangiers, done in 1838 and shown in the Salon of that year. In 1832, when Delacroix had returned to Tangiers after a trip to Meknes, he had witnessed the scene which furnished the subject for this painting. Hidden behind the blinds of a neighboring house he had watched the Fanatics abandon themselves to a mad ecstasy. It was the custom for them to gather outside the town at certain times and to work themselves up by praying, contortions, and frenzied cries until they had lost complete control of themselves. They then traversed the town, often committing dangerous acts en route. The violence and ferocity of this performance appealed to Delacroix’s dramatic sense, and he made a watercolor of the scene. It was from the watercolor, executed in 1832, that he did the oil now in the Hill Collection. The turbulent spirit of the Fanatics is superbly expressed in the rising and falling lines of the composition, arousing in the beholder something of the same excitement that has taken possession of the participants. And to heighten the impression of madness, Delacroix has used burning tones of yellow, red, and blue—a striking instance of his use of color to express mood or character.It was as a colorist that Delacroix first made his mark as a painter. Having early observed Constable’s use of pure color, and, later, the bold Moroccan treatment of vibrant tones, he experimented further with it. In his hands it becomes alive, expressing movement, creating form, or interpreting a mood; it becomes music—lawless, bold, and exciting; seductive and warm; mad or filled with a haunting nostalgia.It is pitched in a nostalgic key in the Côte Barbaresque, painted in 1856 when Delacroix had been long away from Morocco. Thinking back, perhaps, to his excursions along the coast, he has depicted a group of Moors pushing a boat up on to a narrow beach at the foot of great cliffs rising raggedly from the sea. In the distance, through a narrow defile, may be seen one of those weathered, pale villas that contribute such a satisfying accent to the intense harmonies of North African color. The vivid blue of the sea, washing in lazy swells to the shore, is bathed in brilliant light, and the whole scene has a relaxed, withdrawn character that is reminiscent of a perfect, sunny day on any remote stretch of southern sea coast.The second of the Hill paintings, The Collecting of the Arabian Tax, is one of the last two large pictures painted by Delacroix in the year before his death. It depicts a fight between Arabs, a scene of swirling action in which the furious handling of the brush and the stroking together of pure colors produces a brilliant, vibrating surface. The movement here is one that sweeps across the canvas in a dipping line. It is anchored on the near end by a spirited, threshing horse which has gone down with its rider in a heap of color. Beyond, it rises along a shallow bank held by kneeling fighters to a clump of trees enclosing the ravine in which the action takes place. The scene has all the excitement of the Fanatics without its mesmeric quality.This canvas, done in 1863, shows how close Delacroix had come to the theories that were to prevail among the Impressionists, and gives evidence of how much the artists of that school owed to him. Although he never went the full way in the use of pure color, he laid the foundation upon which the Impressionists were to build, and thus became the first of the great modern French painters. His pictures of Morocco now in the Institute convey an impression of that region that is still authentic, thus bringing to life for many observers the North African country that has become of such vital importance to world freedom.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Fanatics of Tangiers by Eugène Delacroix. A painting from the water color made in Tangiers in 1832. Lent by Louis W. Hill
  2. Côte Barbaresque by Eugène Delacroix, French romantic painter of the XIX century. Lent by Mrs. E. C. Lindley
  3. The Collecting of the Arabian Tax. One of the last pictures painted by Delacroix before his death. Lent by Louis W. Hill
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Source: "Three Paintings of North Africa by Delacroix," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 10 (March, 1943): 34-37.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009