Delacroix
Delacroix

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6.7 Delacroix – Orientalism and personal identity

Recent commentators have read paintings such as Sardanapalus as revealing the personal character or values of the artist. Delacroix’s recourse to the exotic and Oriental is seen as an extension of his obsession with his own desires. For example, Linda Nochlin (1983, pp.122–5) has interpreted this picture as an expression of masculine sadism; the cool, dandyish Sardanapalus being a surrogate for the artist himself, both creator and destroyer of all that is around him. To Nochlin, Sardanapalus signifies masculine fantasies about possessing, enjoying and destroying women’s bodies. She argues that a specific historical context gave rise to such fantasies: Delacroix’s ready access, as artist, to the female models he ‘possessed’ in his own studio. The Oriental setting of the painting defuses its sadistic charge by distancing the subject from nineteenth-century France. A similar point concerning male domination has been made (Grimaldo Grigsby, 2002, pp.255–6) concerning the depiction of women’s bodies in Chios, particularly as Delacroix slept with the woman who modelled for the female corpse in the painting's foreground. Whether this was sadism, voyeurism or plain erotic fantasy, this artistic practice is related to the issue of the implied audience for the painting. Did Delacroix envisage a passive (male) viewer who was assumed to welcome such fantasies? It is true that he underestimated the general unease the work would create. The scholar Richard Wrigley has pointed out that the dominant official view of artists in restoration France was that of people ‘properly unworldly – chaste, priest-like, a class apart from the rest of society’ (Wrigley, 1993, p. 135). This view was formed partly in order to counter the disruptive effects of the Revolution on the other-worldliness, spiritual and moral values that were felt to characterize the artist's studio in pre-revolutionary times. David’s circle, for example, was thought to have become too much involved in politics. The restoration establishment perceived the proper artist as someone apart from the normal engagements of social life, debauchery or other worldly approaches. As we have seen, in some respects Delacroix, like many of the Romantics, intensified and celebrated this sense of a being apart from the ‘common herd’. In other respects, however, his art engaged openly with sex, society and politics.

It is possible, then, to argue that Delacroix used Orientalism as a peg on which to hang his personal and Romantic obsessions and as a means of exploring and expressing his identity as an artist. There were, however, aspects of his approach to cultures outside Europe that suggested a less egocentric dimension. To find out more, look at Video 4, band 3 for an account of Delacroix’s 1832 journey to Morocco. There, the artist developed his outlook and technique through travel. The AV notes and the video to which they relate will introduce you to the particular circumstances of Delacroix’s encounter with North Africa – an encounter that was to enable him to study another culture at close hand.

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