Delacroix’s Arabs of Oran (1837)

This beautiful watercolor by Delacroix was clearly important to him because he had it engraved. What no-one seems to have noticed, though, is that this is not an illustration of two  Arabs in Morocco. It would not be art if it was. It is instead Delacroix's imagination of himself as two Arabs imagining this very image. Here's how.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Delacroix, Arabs of Oran (1837) Watercolor on paper

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Two aspects of Delacroix's principal figure (top left) convey the artist's "presence": the head on arm and the frown. He used the same pose in several works (others at left), all of which depict the artist thinking.  The one at top right depicts Michelangelo. Michelangelo frowns like the Arab because the frown in art conveys thought. Many artists frown in their alter egos for the same reason.1 Delacroix must have known that because he spoke and painted the same language.

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Captions for image(s) above:

All details from works by Delacroix

Top L: Arabs of Oran (1837)
Top R: Michelangelo in His Studio (1849-50)
Bottom L: Death of Sardanapulus (1827)
Bottom R: Cromwell at Windsor Castle (1829)

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In addition, several self-portraits across many centuries depict artists with their head on their hand as though in thought.2 At top left Dürer frowns as well.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Dürer, Self-portrait with Bandage, detail (1491-2) Ink on paper. Erlangen.
Top R: Filippo Lippi, Self-portrait detail from Coronation of the Virgin (1441-7) 
Lower L: Käthe Kollwitz, Self-portrait with Head on Hand (1910) Etching
Lower R: Photograph of René Magritte in 1938 next to his Savage (1928)

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There is more. In the lower right corner where signatures traditionally go Delacroix formed the still-life of spear, satchel and (possibly) flask out of his initials E. D. (Eugène Delacroix). The spear is, as I show so often, a visual metaphor for his paint-brush while the others, less clearly, may represent his palette or other tools. In the background Delacroix repeated both initials, using the man's sleeve for the D. Thus the craftsman's symbolic hand emerges from the D of Delacroix. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Delacroix's Arabs of Oran
Right: Diagram of detail at left

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Perhaps the most subtle and important elements of the composition are the brown cloaks which unite the two figures. Close in color, they resemble one cloak and are formed into a fragmentary "face". As a mental image it is only partially indicated.3 The eyes are positioned under folds resembling eyelids; the nose, only two-thirds of which is shown, is the most prominent feature. We are more than likely looking at the face of Dante with whom Delacroix like Michelangelo deeply identified.4 His portrayal of Dante in his first submission to the Salon (inset) has a similar nose. Even the flap of his signature-headwear may be indicated on the right-hand side in the straight line down his cheek.

In forming a mental image of Dante's "face" out of the two cloaks, the Arabs become Janus-like aspects of Delacroix's thought. It is a reminder that while everything in this world appears dualistic (hot/cold, dead/alive, parent/child, day/night etc.), true reality knows only unity. Duality represents change and time passing. Artists, though, observe the world as it appears then represent unity because unity, like the idea of God, is the underlying and unchanging structure of the human mind and of the cosmos. It is eternal.

 


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Delacroix's Arabs of Oran showing "face"; Inset: Dante from Delacroix's Barque of Dante (1821)
Bottom: Detail of of Delacroix's Arabs of Oran

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Notes:

1. Giorgione frowns in his Self-portrait as David as does Michelangelo's David, a sculpture often recognized as self-referential.

2. Dürer famously posed Joseph with his head on hand as well. Joseph the carpenter is, of course, an archetype of the craftsman and Christ's "father".

3. For an explanation of why a mental image is fragmentary, see my entry Cubism Explained (2011).

4. The "nose" in the cloak matches Dante's in Delacroix's first masterpiece, The Barque of Dante (1822). In that painting Dante's figure is formed into the D of Delacroix, thus signalling his deep identification with the medieval poet, and Virgil's figure next to him forms an E for Eugène. Both are in mirror-writing to indicate that we are looking onto the reflective surface of his mind. 

Michelangelo, as I have already shown, composed the Last Judgment around Dante's profile in a similar but more complex manner. See Abrahams, Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes (2005)

Dante's nose was the best-known attribute of his face and was of particular significance because Ovid, the other great poet influential in the Renaissance, was thought to have had a large nose as well. His middle name was Naso, nose in Latin. 

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 25 Apr 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.