Ways to hate Delacroix, and then Matisse

Robert Irwin

  • The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism 1798-1836 by Todd Porterfield
    Princeton, 245 pp, £32.50, March 1999, ISBN 0 691 05959 4

Boy, has Todd Porterfield got it in for the French! According to The Allure of Empire, French artists and writers in the early 19th century threw themselves eagerly into the service of imperialism. Painters worked hard to prepare the way for the conquest of Algeria (which took place from 1830 onwards) and high art glorified the exploitation of the Third World. Paintings by Gros, Delacroix and others served to teach the public about the superiority of the French over lesser breeds. Artists laboured to create a visual culture which could be made to serve imperialism, exploitation and violence. The removal of an obelisk from Luxor and its relocation in the Place de la Concorde functioned (in mixed metaphorical terms) not only as a stake driven through memories of the French Revolution, but also as a pointer towards the occupation of Algeria. Operating in mysterious ways, the obelisk transmuted revolutionary passions into colonialist ambitions.

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