Title: Algiers Jews on the balcony.
Author : CHASSERIAU Théodore (1819 - 1856)
Creation date : 1849
Dimensions: Height 35 - Width 25
Technique and other indications: Oil on wood.
Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet
Picture reference: 95-010930 / RF3882
Algiers Jews on the balcony.
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet
Publication date: January 2007
A pupil of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), but later strongly influenced by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Théodore Chassériau discovered North Africa during a trip that he did there in 1846. On his return from this trip, he became a powerful colourist, as evidenced by this luminous work.
The birth of Théodore Chassériau in Saint-Domingue, in the West Indies, of a probably mixed-race mother and a French father, predisposes him to understand the oriental soul, but the Orient of his painting and his drawings is not limited to to exotic fantasy and escape. Beside rare harem scenes, he paints modern warfare, but as if from a distance, declining to envy images of spahis or Arab horsemen, like his Caïd visiting a douar (1849) or his Arab cavalry fight (1856). He observes the conquered populations of Constantine and Algiers, hoping to find there "the Arab race and the Jewish race as they were on their first day." Théodore Chassériau's Orient has two sides: to a brutal Orient - that of colonial conquest - is opposed an Orient that we can already qualify as ethnographic, with an often heady scent, and where women holds a place of choice. Although no detail explicitly suggests this, it can be assumed that the models of Algiers Jews on the balcony indeed belonged to this community: in fact, unlike Muslim women, Jews did not go out veiled and had the possibility of receiving foreign men in their homes, and therefore possibly artists. In contrast, her Moorish nudes - like A bath in the seraglio (1849), where he deals with the eternal and sensual theme of the woman in the bath - are made after Parisian models and reveal a phantasmagorical and idealized Orient.
This scene is inspired by various sketches taken from life by the artist in Algiers and which he has annotated with his own hand. Visible through the days of the carved wooden balustrade, the white city, bathed in light, reminds us of Algiers, but no topographical detail makes it possible to identify it.
Two women seen from behind are leaning against a twin arch covered with barely sketched ceramic, open in the thickness of a loggia. They converse in the shade, indifferent to the city stretching out at their feet. Their pure profile is clearly a heritage of the neoclassical language acquired by Chassériau in the workshop of his master Ingres. Their costume is typical of Constantine. They are dressed in gandouras as one wears in eastern Algeria, dresses with arched panels and flared down, in green silk with braces and rosettes for the woman on the right, red with bands and oblique flowers embroidered with gold for the left woman. Underneath they are wearing a garment whose sleeves are in white gauze embroidered with gold, silver and silk. Fringed scarves, modest belts around their waists, are part of the house outfit, as is the long-sided chechia of the woman on the right. The silk scarf worn above the cone and floating over the shoulders of the woman on the left is reserved for married women. The sobriety of the jewelry, rings and bracelets proves that Chassériau saw the two women at home on an ordinary day, the rich adornments being reserved for celebrations. The presence of the silver container placed on the ground in the foreground is unusual. It is usually used in the kitchen, or to store sweets and various objects, and placed on a shelf.
We are not here in the enclosed space of a seraglio where women can only observe what is happening outside through the moucharabiehs, ornate fences that hide them from view in the gazebos projecting from the houses. The two women can be seen from the balcony, and if you cannot make out the landscape below, a beautiful glimpse of blue sky occupies the entire upper part of the painting.
With the conquest of Algeria in 1830, exchanges, missions and official trips multiplied and gave a prodigious impetus to Orientalism. The French government is encouraging artists to come there in order to make the country known through the works they will exhibit at the annual Salon. As early as 1830, the first painters sketched from life the battles and the achievements of the French army in Algeria, "artistic" missions that would continue until the First World War. Far from these historical scenes, artists like Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Eugène Fromentin (1820-1876), Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) or Gustave Guillaumet (1840-1887) bring a vision that expresses their fascination and their enthusiasm for this country.
Some cities in the East are very welcoming to artists. Cairo even has workshops for them, and trips are easily organized from Algiers, Alexandria or Constantinople. The painter then made sketches or watercolors during his expedition and designed the final work in his studio on his return to France. Concerned about accuracy and realism, some even use the brand new technique of photography in place of traditional sketches. This is how Horace Vernet (1789-1863) produced daguerreotypes as early as 1839. To improve the quality of their studio work, painters collected exotic local objects and costumes which enabled them to refine the details of their works.
The Orient exerts a particular attraction on certain artists, such as Gustave Guillaumet, who does not hesitate to share the life of the poor populations of the desert in order to fix on the canvas, as faithfully as possible, scenes of their daily existence. Other painters went so far as to settle permanently in North Africa. Thus, during a trip to Marrakech in 1917, Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) was seduced by Morocco and decided to settle there. Likewise, after several trips to Algeria, the magic of the desert led Étienne Dinet (1861-1929) to settle in the oasis of Bou-Saada. He learned Arabic and even converted to Islam in 1913.
Régis POULET, L'Orient: Genealogy d'une illusion, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, Paris, 2002. Edward W. SAÏD, L'Orientalisme.L'Orient created by the West, Paris, Le Seuil, 1980 (reprint 1994 Marc SANDOZ, Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856 Catalog raisonné of paintings and prints, Paris, AMG, 1974 Lynne THORNTON, La Femme dans la peinture orientaliste, Paris, ACRÉditions, 1996 Lynne THORNTON, Les Orientalistes / Peintres voyageurs , Paris, ACRÉditions, 1983 (reprint 2001). Catalog of paintings from the Louvre, volume I, “French School”, Paris, RMN, 1972. Illustrated summary catalog of paintings from the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, volume III, “French School”, Paris, RMN, 1986.
To cite this article
Alain GALOIN, "Jews of Algiers on the balcony of Chassériau"