We are used to think that French Romanticism is mostly based on the appraisal of antique motives and aesthetics. It is true, but not the whole of it, by the way. Another great source of inspiration were oriental ideas and elements, dreaming about them. This essay focuses on oriental motives in oeuvre of two very well-known romanticism painters: Ingres and Delacroix.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered by some amount of art historians to be a neoclassicist. However, I would argue with that. First of all, classical motives were not his only source of inspiration, they were more like a basis of his style, partly subconscious, derived from years of studying in academic way. Secondly, the ease with which he alters the proportions of human body, the variety of epochs and cultures which he transforms in his paintings point out some significant distance between him, Academy and neoclassicism. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres created paintings based on mythology for Academy, portraits in order to earn money and a great deal of the art left was inspired by oriental motives, includes them (at least, in the beginning). The interesting fact is that the painter himself had never been to Middle or Far East, all he had were stories about travelling there (documentary or fictional), little objects that were brought from there and, of course, a great deal of his own imagination.
The illustrative example for that may be The Grande Odalisque created by Ingres in 1814. The painter creates quite typical late-Renaissance composition and figure, enriching them by insertion of little oriental details. The woman herself has a European kind of beauty changed by elongation of her back and neck, creating the appealing sense of eastern mystery. The viewer feels that something is wrong but he cannot stop admiring this woman, her intriguing beauty, trying to solve the mystery.
The latter example, which I would like to present here, is Odalisque with slave, finished in 1842. Clearly, the Ingres’s connoisseurship of eastern cultures has broadened, which results in the amount of objects included. Nevertheless, the basis remains the same: the figure and posture of odalisque is quite similar with women on Venetian Late Renaissance paintings. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres strives to learn more about the culture that fascinates him. He creates a very interesting mix of carefully copied eastern details, professional academic training and his own imagination.
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix is often opposed to Ingres (even in Wikipedia), but they have a lot of common. Both of them were highly influenced by both Venetian Late Renaissance paintings and oriental motives. They both changed classical canons of interpretation, each one on his own way. The greatest difference between them within the topic of this essay is that Delacroix actually did visit Eastern countries and had the opportunity to base the works on the memories and experience of his own. His early oriental works, such as Woman with a parrot (1827), resemble those of Ingres, lacking his intrigue and sensuality. The eroticism in early Delacroix works is more open and visible. For the painter the oriental details are more like an external frame of naked woman and her beauty.
Women of Algiers painted in 1834 were influenced by the personal experience the painter had in eastern countries. Of course, there was no possibility for him to see the harem inside, but the painter observed the type oriental beauty, depicting it in women. He also inserted more details, which show his connoisseurship of eastern world, its habits, culture and style.
As we can see, oriental motives are an important part of the Romanticism paintings. The East lured dreamers by its mystery, another culture, style of life and mind, producing a great deal of art objects inspired by it.