Long before his death and canonization, Eugène Delacroix—currently the subject of a massive retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan—was a semifictional, heroic character, created in some large part by the artist himself. In a famous photograph, he cuts a figure as striking as any in his paintings, eyes narrowed dramatically, right hand tucked in his jacket à la Napoleon, mouth curled downward in a comical display of seriousness.

A key chapter of Delacroix’s self-made epic was his 1832 trip to Africa, for which he paid his own way on a ship full of French diplomats in exchange for a chance to see a continent as alien to the average European as Australia. While the rest of his cohort haggled with the sultan of Morocco over the terms of a peace treaty, he faced a bigger challenge: talking the Muslim women of Tangier into removing their veils so that he could draw them.

Like many a frustrated diplomat, he began by asking politely, then resorted to bribery, and finally, when all else had failed, espionage. Riding through the countryside one day, he noticed two Arab women washing their clothes in a streambed. When one of them (the prettier of the two, so the legend goes) removed her clothes to bathe, Delacroix began surreptitiously sketching. After a few minutes, she noticed she was being watched and cried out for her husband, who chased the Peeping Tom all the way back to the city gates, waving a gun. That, at least, is the anecdote that appears in Raymond Escholier’s three-volume Delacroix biography from the 1920s, the work that cemented its subject’s status as the quintessential French romantic.

Delacroix only spent half a year in North Africa. But in the following decade he’d revisit this period again and again, translating hastily scribbled notes and sketches into scores of vast, coruscating images of a foreign civilization. Yet most of the women who appear in these images aren’t Muslims, but Sephardic Jews, who’d made up a small fraction of the Moroccan population since their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and who—since their faith didn’t require them to wear veils—were more convenient models. Delacroix sketched Jewish brides, Jewish mothers, as well as Jewish musicians, cooks, children, attendants, civil servants: in all, a significant chunk of his output overseas.

If Delacroix himself was a strange blend of myth and truth, the same could be said of his impressions of North Africa. In his 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said accused Delacroix of misrepresenting the people of Morocco, perhaps unconsciously, as fearsome, exotic “others;” seeing them as his culture had trained him to see them. For a long time, this is more or less the way art history departments have taught the Moroccan paintings—as products not only of Delacroix’s keen eye and steady hand, but of 19th-century Europe’s wild imagination, as well.

Yet Delacroix’s North African paintings are gentler and more intimate than his paintings of fiery Arabs and snorting horses—for once, you sense that he’s approaching his subjects as a guest, not a spectator. This may have something to do with the Jewish friends Delacroix made during his time abroad, or with the Jews’ status in North Africa—there, as in Europe, they were regarded as refugees in a foreign land. At the same time, the images of Moroccan Jews can seem unique and surprising because Delacroix himself was surprised by them—instead of ready-made pictures, rooted in Orientalist myths, he’d stumbled upon something genuinely, unignorably new.

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When you consider France’s relationship with North Africa in the early 19th century, two things jump out: how fascinated everybody was with an enchanting, faraway place called “the Orient” and how little anybody knew about the people who lived there. Parisian bourgeoisie afflicted with “Egyptomania” packed their homes with scarabs, miniature obelisks, and, if they had the means, mummy dust (said to cure insomnia, venereal disease, and pretty much anything else), unaware that these things were mysterious to living Egyptians, too. In 1852, Delacroix’s rival, Ingres, delighted connoisseurs by painting a Turkish bath full of buxom women waiting to be ravished; having no way of visiting Turkey, he copied figures from his earlier works, many of which he’d modeled off of alabaster statues.

Orientalist fads said very little about Egypt or Turkey and a lot about post-revolutionary French society’s boredom and sexual frustration. They also bespoke France’s rise as a global superpower. In 1798, the year of Delacroix’s birth, Napoleon Bonaparte led his army into North Africa, sailing aboard a ship called L’Orient; he brought back stories of pyramids and sphinxes calculated to whet his country’s appetite. The following decades saw an explosion of interest in Egypt and the exotic “other” that, per Said, “obliterated the Oriental as a human being,” smothering him under mounds of kitsch and smut.

Napoleon, always the shrewd propagandist, had made a point of bringing a team of scientists and artists to Africa, and Delacroix appears to have played a roughly similar role in the diplomatic mission to Morocco, his presence signaling that this was a “civilized” visit, not a conquest. Already a notable painter by his early 30s, he cultivated an influential group of friends who—just a few weeks before the ship was scheduled to sail–persuaded Count Charles de Mornay to bring Delacroix to North Africa. The peace treaty de Mornay would establish between his country and Morocco lasted a few years, broke down with the outbreak of the Franco-Moroccan War, and eventually shrank into a tiny footnote in the history of French art. Delacroix’s Moroccan work, on the other hand, became so thoroughly intertwined with Europe’s perception of North Africa that when Henri Matisse sailed there in the early 20th century he said he found the vistas “exactly as they are described in Delacroix’s paintings.”

In describing his journey, Delacroix, like Matisse, was quick to bring up his own profession. The Spaniards he glimpsed at Gibraltar had been plucked straight from a Goya canvas; the beautiful fabrics of Tangier were fit for a Rubens painting; the African sunsets evoked Veronese; the proud Arab people put David to shame. Peculiarly, Morocco itself looked “like the age of Homer,” a reservoir of artistic tradition that could quench a young artist’s thirst for inspiration.

Foraging
Eugène Delacroix, ‘Mort de Sardanapale,’ 1827. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He’d thought of the Orient in these lofty terms long before he’d arrived. For his 1822 version of “The Death of Sardanapalus,” he showed the doomed Assyrian king reclining on blood-red sheets, drinking in the glorious destruction around him. Painting these kinds of scenes, which showed the ancient Near East in all its “barbaric” passion, was for Delacroix a way of revitalizing Western art, of traveling back in time and accessing Mediterranean culture before it had hardened into neoclassicism. Sailing to Morocco was the natural next step—not because of his fascination with Moroccan society in particular but because of what a Moroccan aesthetic might add to his own work.

Delacroix came to Morocco looking for “color” and “energy.” By his own account, he found them almost as soon as he’d gotten off the ship. What he also found, inevitably, were actual non-Western people, going about their daily business—and this, as trivial as it seems, was revolutionary for European painting.

Instead of recycling his own copies, like Ingres, Delacroix drew from real life, walking through the streets of Tangier with a green leather sketchbook and often filling dozens of pages in a single day. Squeezed in between the sketches, endless notes detail what he saw: what the people of Tangier were wearing, what names they gave, what they seemed to be talking about, how they reacted to being drawn. These jottings are practically works of art in themselves—expressionist renderings of a struggle to learn everything there is to know about a foreign place. Even for a master draftsman, drawing wasn’t enough.

In his sketches, Delacroix was forced to give the people of North Africa what earlier Orientalists had refused them—an everyday life, unrelated to Europe’s fantasies. The same could be said for many of the paintings he completed after returning to Paris. Next to his Orientalist fever-dreams of the 1820s, “Jewish Wedding in Morocco” (1841) feels like a long, easy sigh—notice how, by choosing not to paint the climactic union of bride and groom, he clears room for humble details like the children’s faces peeking over the balcony or the pile of shoes in the foreground (and for all its artist’s rhapsodizing about the vibrant North African color palate, it’s remarkable how much of the canvas is taken up by the yellowish-gray wall). Where “The Death of Sardanapalus” is a kind of frantic juggling act, where only Delacroix’s intense concentration holds everything together, this wedding could drift on forever, with or without the painter.

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Delacroix attended many intimate Jewish gatherings during his time in Morocco, and mined them for striking images. This wasn’t only because Islamic tradition made his interactions with Arab women comparatively difficult (though it undeniably did); in Tangier, Delacroix had a friend on the inside, a Jewish guide and interpreter who knew the city well enough to escort him to the right places. His name was Abraham Benchimol, and it’s likely that on Feb. 21, 1832, he invited Delacroix to attend the wedding of his daughter, Préciada—the same ceremony the artist would later immortalize in “Jewish Wedding in Morocco.”

Benchimol was a man of great importance to the French colonial apparatus, but little prestige. He had the miserable job of lending money to visiting civil servants, and, if his conversations with Delacroix are any indication, the crown almost never reimbursed him For much of his time in North Africa, Delacroix stayed with Benchimol and his family; during this time, he befriended Préciada, as well as Benchimol’s wife, Saada, both of whom take up many pages of his sketchbook.

Eugène Delacroix, ‘Saada, the Wife of Abraham Ben-Chimol, and Préciada, One of Their Daughters,’ 1832. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

One of Delacroix’s finest watercolors features Préciada dressed in her bridal gown and jewelry, sitting stiffly upright while Saada leans over her chair. The faint curl in the older woman’s lip might signal amusement (with the awkward stranger drawing her portrait?); a raised eyebrow suggests she’s a little intrigued, too; the dark circles under her eyes make her seem profoundly weary—it’s been years, after all, since she went through the ceremony her child is about to embark on. In his images of Moroccan Jews, Delacroix moves back and forth between these two sorts of figures: one coldly ornate as a glass doll, the other calm and unpretentious, the bearer of an inner life she has no intention of divulging.

In public, Delacroix knew from his conversations with Benchimol, Moroccan Jews had to abide by the religion of their adopted country. This knowledge surely informed his art: Shortly before he left Tangier, Delacroix witnessed a Jewish woman walking by a mosque. In his sketchbook, he described the episode in great detail: Following Muslim custom, she removed her shoes as she passed the holy building, put them back on again, and disappeared into the crowd. But Delacroix was less interested in the status of the Sephardic community than in the Sephardic woman’s feet. They were utterly “charming,” he wrote, the most charming features “that nature bestowed on Venus”—and on and on and on, with the same quivering awe that Stendhal reserved for the entire city of Florence.

At moments like this, you want more from Delacroix. You want him to connect the dots in his sketchbook, and pay a little more attention to the Jews’ wavering status in North Africa instead of salivating over their bodies. Delacroix was, of course, an artist, not an ethnographer, and his emphasis on the glittering, fetishistic part over the whole was a part of his talent. His phenomenal eye for detail—Saada’s lip, say, or the shoes at Préciada’s wedding—led him to fashion scenes of great nuance and sociological insight, but there were also moments when he allowed himself to become so overwhelmed by the greens of a woman’s skirt that he forgot almost everything else about her.

The intermittence of Delacroix’s interest in the lives of Moroccan Jews is especially frustrating because of what was happening to Jews in his own country. Shortly after his coronation, Napoleon declared Judaism a state religion. He also annulled all outstanding debts to Jewish creditors, bankrupting France’s most powerful Jewish families with a stroke of the pen. The same year de Mornay allowed Delacroix to accompany him to Africa, Jews were granted full equality under French law; one year after the mission’s return, the Guizot Law, which required all French children to attend public school, began its slow obliteration of Jewish culture. The “Jewish Question”—in effect, whether the Jew would be treated as citizen or subhuman—was the first great moral challenge for French state after 1789, and it responded with a mixture of sincerity, bluster, and laziness.

For “Liberty Guiding the People” (1830), probably the most famous painting he ever completed, Delacroix showed the embodiment of the French Republic leading a band of heroic democrats against the tyrannical throne. Throughout his life, he celebrated the Enlightenment and the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This, in theory, might have led to some interest in the lives of the Sephardic Jews he encountered in Morocco, but his record is spottier: As is often the case with artists, his aesthetics tend to trump his politics.

Not that the two didn’t sometimes align. “Arab Players,” first displayed at the Paris Salon of 1848 (and on view in the Met exhibit), shows a big, boisterous crowd, of the kind Delacroix would sometimes see while riding around the Tangier countryside, gathered around a minstrel show. Arabs, Jews, and Berbers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, united by their love for the entertainment. This vision of racial equality in Morocco borders on the utopian, all the more so because Delacroix painted it in a year when Jews all over Europe were lobbying their governments for citizenship, and when it sometimes seemed that the Enlightenment would never quite be able to live up to its promises. It’s admirable, and surely no coincidence, that Delacroix, the rare Frenchman who’d spent time alongside the Arabs and Jews of Morocco, painted an Orientalist work in which the West looks beyond its ken not with condescension or fear, but envy.

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