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.

The Allure of Empire is attractively produced. It is also subtly argued and elegantly written, but by someone who seems to see himself as some sort of guerrilla in a post-colonial cultural war, in which old-style art history has been superseded. Referring to battle paintings of Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign (1798-9), Porterfield claims that ‘traditional accounts of Orientalism esteem these pictures as authentic documents of the East.’ His note here refers us to some half-dozen catalogues and other works by (presumably) traditional art historians. I have checked two of these references. Michelle Verrier’s very brief text does not discuss paintings of Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign at all. MaryAnne Stevens does briefly discuss the three Egyptian paintings by Gros and notes that they were commissioned as propaganda, that Gros had not been to Egypt and that he ‘conjured up an exotic world of brilliant colour, dramatic turmoil and unfamiliar settings, which was to fix certain preconceptions about the Near East’. I suspect that a fantasy opposition has been conjured up by Porterfield only in order to rubbish it.

If one is going to present a politicised version of art history, it is desirable to get the politics right. Porterfield claims that by 1833, ‘thanks to the work of Bonaparte, Denon, and their followers, Egypt had become a client state of France.’ This is to anticipate later developments by several decades. In the course of the 1860s and 70s, the country did become financially and, to some extent, politically a client of France and Britain. However, Egypt under Muhammad ‘Ali was certainly not a client state of France. Although it was then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, it was an imperialist power in its own right. Not only had the Egyptians occupied Syria and Lebanon, but Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad ‘Ali’s son, had advanced with an all conquering army through Anatolia and, having occupied Konya, actually threatened Istanbul. Egyptian troops had also occupied the Hejaz and the British feared that Muhammad ‘Ali’s forces might invade Iraq and go on to occupy the Gulf ports. Muhammad ‘Ali contemplated an invasion of Algeria as well. Later on, Porterfield twits Delacroix for describing Algiers as a ‘despotism’. It was. The Deys of Algiers subsisted on the profits of slaving and piracy, and according to Charles-André Julien’s Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine (1964), the country was exploitatively ruled by a Turkish minority and the absolute power of the Dey depended on the military support of the Janissary regiment. Charles-Robert Ageron’s Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (1964) affords essentially the same picture. In the 1830s people said Algiers was a despotism, not because they were indulging in stereotypical thinking, but because it was a fact.

One of the book’s illustrations is of the harem of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It is by Antoine-Ignace Melling and dates from 1777. Porterfield tells us what we are looking at:

The harem, which he so scrupulously details in pictures, signifies the lubricity of Oriental societies, their ‘denatured law’, and the hazards of lesbian love. Meanwhile the viewer’s eye is able to survey the entire subject, to have access to a place where Westerners and all men, except the sultan, are forbidden. Thus, Melling could be both titillating and contemptuous while appearing to be, superficially at least, merely informative.

What the engraving depicts is something resembling a large barracks within which (fully-clothed) women are decorously sitting or walking about. One needs the eye of faith to see anything erotic or exploitative in this picture and, if Porterfield was really titillated by it, he must have been suffering from an extreme case of satyriasis.

It is tempting to assume that Western notions about the harem of the Ottoman sultan were dominated by lubricious, orgiastic fantasies. In fact, the Seraglio more often provoked admiration and sober reportage. Ottavio Bon’s influential Descrizione del Serraglio del Gransignore (1608) described it as more like a closely supervised nunnery than anything else. What is also baffling is Porterfield’s claim that Melling had unprecedented access to the harem because of his status as a physician. Not only was he not a physician (he was an architect), but he had no access to the harem. In recent years, in the course of researching an erotic novella, I have twice wandered round the harem of the Topkapi Palace without spotting anything like the building depicted by Melling, nor is it obvious where there could have been space for it. Although the context and purpose of the engraving are obscure, it is most likely that Melling produced the design of a projected building in the hope of getting the Sultan’s commission to build it. It is probably an architectural fantasy, but a sober and conscientious one.

The paintings by Gros of French victories and heroism in Egypt are accused of not presenting an equivalent of a photographic record. But, given that the paintings were commissioned and executed as propaganda, such accusations seem beside the point. Paintings like The Battle of Nazareth (1801) favour the French as against the Turks, because they are paintings of French victories done by a Frenchman for a French audience. But Porterfield gets himself into a particularly intricate tangle in his discussion of Gros’s General Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa. He suggests, first, that Gros’s portrayal of Bonaparte touching the plague sore of one of the victims was intended to suggest that he had thaumaturgic powers and, secondly, that the painting suggests that Bonaparte did not have thaumaturgic powers, since the pesthouse is shown littered with corpses. Both propositions have much to commend them.

It is easy to hate the paintings of Gros but Porterfield gives us a few tips in case we need them. The main thing is to labour their obvious, propagandistic features at the expense of their aesthetic qualities and the heroic aspects of what is depicted. It is not so easy to hate Delacroix, but Porterfield offers guidance here, too, as he shows Scenes from the Massacres at Chios (1824) to be a thoroughly objectionable painting. In 1822, Greek Samian liberation fighters, who had landed on the island of Chios, were briefly successful in wresting the place from the Ottoman Turkish garrison, whom they slaughtered. Turkish forces swiftly re-occupied the island, however, and took a terrible retaliation. Thousands of islanders were killed. Many of the men, women and children were burnt alive in the monasteries where they had taken refuge. Tens of thousands more were taken into slavery, but since there were now more slaves than there was a demand for, thousands more were massacred at the Fish Market in Istanbul and their severed heads placed between their legs. Greeks elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire were lynched or arrested and tortured before being executed. Delacroix might have painted the unfortunate Greeks being burnt alive, bastinadoed, or having needles inserted under their fingernails. He might have painted the mountains of severed heads, ears and noses assembled by Turkish butchers. Yet his painting, which avoids documentary horror even though it seeks to evoke pity and indignation, is a masterpiece of restraint. It makes use of deep perspective to show several scenes of Turkish depredation. Like Picasso’s Guernica, the Massacres at Chios was painted in protest against the atrocity it depicted, but Porterfield complains that Delacroix has an ambivalent attitude to his subject and that he has ‘forced’ his audience to savour its violence.

Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers is another painting in the imaginary Black Museum. This harem scene, featuring three serene, richly clad, seated women and one standing woman, was not painted with an innocent eye. Far from it, it is really rather sinister, for it ‘passes for objective fact or scientific fact, and, at the same time, it provokes a longstanding moralising cant about the depravity of the East’. Not only that, but this painting (which becomes more amazing by the page) ‘promoted the rationale for the extension of France’s role in the Near East’. Porterfield seems to doubt that Delacroix had ever entered a harem in North Africa. In fact, there is good evidence that he had been in a Jewish one in Tunis and that a senior official later allowed him to gaze in on one in Algiers. What Delacroix saw in Algiers reminded him not of the Arabian Nights or similar Orientalist fantasies, but rather of Homer and accounts of women spinning wool or embroidering in a gynaeceum. Porterfield, however, unimpressed by what the painter actually says, suggests that Delacroix’s painting owed more to Orientalist cliché than it did to direct observation and that he copied the poses of the three seated women from Rosset’s watercolour, Turk with His Wives. The resemblance between the two pictures is thin indeed: for example, one of Delacroix’s figures is kneeling rather than sitting. The Algerian novelist and filmmaker, Assia Jebbar, is cited with apparent approval for saying of The Women of Algiers that it ‘both actively oppresses Oriental women and accurately depicts their oppression’. This is striking as a rhetorical flourish, but, on reflection, drivel. Common sense tells us that the real oppressors of Algerian women have been Algerian men, not Delacroix. (For a detailed and convincing portrait of how women have been oppressed in Algeria’s post-colonial patriarchy, see Ian Young’s The Private Life of Islam, 1974.)

Next, how to hate Matisse. Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers (1921-22) helped ‘celebrate France’s extension of its empire during World War One’. It contributed to a general backlash against Modernist abstraction and art which was too individualistic and, of course, ‘it repeated the now clichéd subject of the Oriental woman.’ The last point is probably true, but it must have made a change from the even more clichéd subject of the naked Western woman whom Matisse normally painted.

Porterfield is a stern policeman of the arts. He goes around checking canvases for their anti-colonial and feminist credentials. An awareness of atmosphere, colour, space, line, romance or beauty would be a distraction. There is of course some truth in the thesis that much French art in the early 19th century served imperialist purposes. But just how vital was it in performing that service? Did imperialists, bankers, planters and soldiers need reminders from painters about how to do their job? Were they really that absent-minded? Were the paintings of Delacroix a necessary precondition for a French empire in North Africa? Most of the early European settlers in Algeria were not French, but Maltese, Italians and Spaniards of very humble origins. How many of those actively involved in the conquest and settlement had seen a painting by Delacroix? If they had, would they have liked it? The Allure of Empire makes everything it discusses seem most unalluring.

Other American academic art historians have preceded Porterfield in this culture war, in which they have savaged French artists for subtle or, in some cases, wholly imaginary Orientalist offences. But surely there are more obvious targets for criticism closer to home? Paris is not the only place to have an obelisk: there is one in New York. American Freemasons shipped it out from Alexandria and installed it in Central Park in 1881. If the French used to have a colonial empire in the Middle East and North Africa, nowadays it is the United States which has an economic empire in the same region and supports there a client state, Israel. American feature films regularly travesty Arabs, Turks and Persians. Hollywood presents Orientals as fanatics, slavers, belly-dancers, terrorists, drug-runners, rapists and allies of the Nazis. Why then spend so much time indicting Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers as evidence of some kind of cultural war crime? Why such ingenious exercises in Francophobic philistinism? Vive la France!