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New Left Review I/83, January-February 1974


Anna Bostock

Women of Algiers

When Delacroix visited North Africa in the 1830s he did a thing which was extremely rare for a European in those days to do: he went inside an Algerian home and saw, unveiled, the women of the house in their living quarters. Later, back in Paris, he painted a picture called Women of Algiers which was based on that experience. The painting shows three beautiful young women seated idly on carpets on the floor of a room; a fourth woman, a black servant, turns back to look at her mistresses as she is about to walk out of the door. One of the women is holding a bubble pipe; one is touching her own bare ankle; the third is doing nothing with her hands at all. She gazes dreamily at the spectator. The other two might be talking desultorily to one another. The three seated women show no animation whatsoever; the servant, who is in motion, is the only moderately dynamic figure. The rest of the picture’s energy is in its shapes and colours—and in its message. There is an ideal grace and repose about the image; but there is also a subtly disturbing blankness. One might perhaps say that the painting describes a dream: a male dream of perfectly passive femininity and, by implication, of masculine power.

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