Delacroix’s Moroccan Painted Memories

“If someday you have a few months to spare, come to Barbary…you will feel the precious and exceptional influence of the sun, which gives everything a piercing life.” Just over 160 years ago, Eugène Delacroix left a wan Paris winter for a six-month adventure in North Africa. While few of us can jump up and follow his footsteps, following his brush strokes is an excellent alternative. Delacroix in Morocco – a gathering of his painted mementos – is on exhibit until January 15 at the Institut du Monde Arabe.

Splendor and sprawl barely begin to describe Delacroix’s 1832 trip to Morocco. He was 35 years old, had experienced a queasy mix of acclaim and derision at the Salons, and was restless for adventure. When Ambassador Charles de Mornay tapped him to join the goodwill mission to appease Morocco’s Sultan Moulay Abd al-Rahman, the artist was “in a whirl.” Like many of his era, he was fascinated with the exotic, and this was an opportunity to experience it firsthand. The itinerary took him from Tangiers on an epic journey inland to visit the sultan, followed by a brief side trip to Spain, and a stopover that included a harem visit in Algiers. Delacroix worked like a demon, filling seven notebooks with drawings, watercolors and notes on the people, architecture and accouterments of Moroccan life.

About one hundred of these works appear in the Institut show, which also features later, large-scale oils with Oriental themes. Gathered from museums and private collections around the world, the works document the ultimate artistic road trip. They also cast light on the methodology of one of the rare great artists who thought as brilliantly as he painted.

Delacroix is called a Romantic. The word implies an inchoate emotionalism that is important in his work, but the man himself was almost icily intellectual. He tussled for decades with color theory, turning to sources as diverse as the Gobelins dye experts, British landscape painters and the water droplets on Rubens’ sea nymphs to help crack the mysteries of light and hue. He loved to theorize on aesthetics, not only in his voluminous notebooks and journals, but also as a professional critic for contemporary magazines. Finally, he researched his subjects scrupulously before setting brush to canvas, making sure that details of costume and demeanor were as accurate as could be.

His anthropological eye was perfectly suited for the North African mission. Watercolor sketches of figures, buildings, objects and landscapes, most bearing color notations, show the artist’s unquenchable appreciation for the details of appearance. Having grown up with the waxwork neoclassical Romans of Jacques-Louis David, Delacroix was thrilled to find that the Moroccans were veritable “men of consular type, each one a Cato or a Brutus.” He was also enchanted with the women – seemingly as much by their intricate jewelry and artfully knotted head scarves as by any better-hidden charms. These sketches are lovely for their limpid colors as well as for the closely observed detail: La Juive Morocain Assise wears a cerise scarf and pine-green skirt, which covers all but the toe of a rose-red slipper.

The show continues with seven watercolors in a greater state of finish. Delacroix did these while he waited out quarantine in Toulon, as a parting gift for the ambassador. They include scenes of warriors asleep and at play, saluting the French entourage. The Jeu de la Poudre, a fusillade executed at full gallop, would recur in variations throughout Delacroix’s later work.

This recycling of images is hardly surprising given their extraordinary value. Before photography, in a time when few artists of any caliber were traveling to the Orient, these journals were both a personal and a historical record. This fact would not have escaped the chronicler (who was rumored to have been fathered by Talleyrand) – indeed it explains his participation in the official voyage. Delacroix drew from these scenes again and again; the exhibition’s final room is filled with the resultant oils.

Here, scrutiny gives way to showmanship; it’s easy to forget that behind the swirls and slashes are hours of careful observation. Still another distraction for the senses is Delacroix’s fabled way with color. This attribute is a truism of art history – but the truth is that most of Delacroix’s paintings in Paris have so deteriorated, one can barely read the colors, much less appreciate them. Not here. They are gloriously evident in works like Guerrier près d’un tombeau, or the Vue de Tanger prise de la côte, where sea, sky and ground-fog blues are set off by yellowed stone and the bright costumes of the Tangiers boatmen.

Down the stairs at the Institut is a gallery filled with costumes, ceramics, instruments and other objects the happy traveler bought to bring home. While they are both interesting and aesthetic in their own right, it’s unfortunate that objects rather than artworks form the conclusion of the show (but perhaps inevitable, given the Institute’s layout). Also unfortunate is the way the exhibition begins: with a line whose longueurs must rival Delacroix’s own wait to see the sultan. Readers are warned to avoid Sunday afternoons at all cost. For other times, take a good book or a really interesting companion.

Once one is inside, these sketches, paintings and prints provide all the entertainment one could ask for. The exoticism of Delacroix’s big adventure is still intoxicating, and a century and a half later we line up to see the travelogue. It isn’t quite the Barbary Coast, but in these gray days, it’s transport enough.

“Delacroix, Le voyage au Maroc,”  Institut du Monde Arabe.


Leave a Reply