post-colonialism_delacroix_e (1)

Figure 1. Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834). Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre.

Jasmine Clarke

Ideologies are systems of beliefs, images, and values which provide a collectively-held understanding of the world.1 Ideology is a form of power, as it makes constructed, historically-specific ideas seem natural and inevitable.2 Marxism in particular emphasized the false nature of ideology. Ideologies presented in visual productions can also be seen as false, meaning that they are constructed by those in power in order to hold and manipulate power.3 Ideologies are crucial to the study of art history because they inform the ways in which art has been used to enforce power and societal beliefs. Images have an especially powerful ability to naturalize beliefs, which is why art historians are constantly attempting to unpack whatever ideologies might inform works of art.

Art historians have analyzed visual productions in order to establish how an ideology is given visible form.4 Ideologies represented in visual productions are attempts to naturalize a particular historical narrative.5 As art historian T.J. Clark stated: “Ideology is what the picture is, and what the picture is not.”6 Clark suggests that visual productions can be interpreted as the truth, but that viewers should also question what these works imply and represent about particular cultures. Ideological representations should not be taken at face value, but rather must be regarded as (and interpreted) with systematic suspension.7 This close, skeptical analysis is important because it provides insight into how groups and individuals use works of art to maintain positions of power.  It also tells us how works of art are constructed with complex meanings that can inform us about larger political and economic systems.

Ideological analysis, for example, is crucial to understanding how nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings and colonial imagery supported French imperialism and dominance over the Orient (for the French, a region which included North Africa and the Middle East). The Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834) [Figure 1] by Eugene Delacroix is a painting that has been heavily studied for its ideological assumptions. It has provoked countless interpretations since it was originally exhibited at the Salon of 1834 in Paris. One interpretation, by John Zarobell, suggests that the painting exemplifies Delacroix’s subjective view of the Orient, and justifies French imperialism and power over the Orient.8

In The Women of Algiers [Figure 1] Delacroix depicts three Algerian women and a servant in a harem, a separate part of Muslim households strictly reserved for wives and female servants. Delacroix was an Orientalist painter who travelled to Algiers with an official government diplomatic mission and created works of art representing the Orient in a way that reinforced and legitimized long-held French imperialist stereotypes of the Orient. In The Women of Algiers Delacroix affirms and constructs his fantasy of Oriental women in a time when France had only recently invaded Algeria.9 He made a painting that was shaped by perceptions of Algerian women as passive and sexualized. For a European male viewer, entering the forbidden harem would have been  desirable. There is debate over whether or not Delecroix depicted this scene from an eyewitness account since the harem was forbidden to men, especially to Europeans. Thus, it is possible that the women are Algerian models who Delacroix placed in his imagined harem scene.10 It is important for viewers to consider the ways in which Delacroix constructed a fictional scene for a particular viewer: a nineteenth-century French male. According to Todd Porterfield, The Women of Algiers evokes both desire for the harem women and repulsion at the Orient’s seemingly inferior social and political systems. The painting therefore serves as an index of the social corruption and the political decline of the Orient, a visual justification for French colonial presence.11

Social art historians would ask to what extent Delacroix’s work participated alongside the economic and political ideology of his powerful patrons: the French Government and the growing bourgeois class of art spectators and consumers.12 The Women of Algiers cannot be separated from these larger ideologies. The king of France at the time, Louis-Philippe, had extended the Restoration’s imperial policy toward Algeria.13 Without the French military and missions of Louis-Phillippe in Algiers, Delacroix would not have been able to gain access to a Muslim harem during this three-day stay in Algiers.14 Art historian Amy Tucker elaborates on this point:

I believe that Delacroix’s Women of Algiers worked not only as a focus for psychosexual fantasy but also as a pre-colonial propaganda, supporting the controversial program of French colonialism in Algiers. Precisely because The Women of Algiers was thought to reside in the realm of the domestic-ethnographic genre of art, it could function as a powerful ideological tool for high politics. Because the painting was considered ahistorical and apolitical, its assertion of female passivity was all the more convincing as ethnography, a piece of the “truth” about how Algerians lived. “Art” functioned to disguise politics.15

Artistic productions can support the political agenda of a particular culture, without appearing so, which is one reason why they are so powerful. The Women of Algiers affirms and perpetuates a certain ideology about the Orient which operated as an endorsement of and justification for colonialism in Algeria and French imperialism at-large.


  1. Eric Fernie, Art History and its Methods (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), 246.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. T.J. Clark, “The Conditions of Artistic Creation” in Art History and its Methods (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995). 251.
  6. Ibid.
  7. David Summers, “Representation,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Richard S. Nelson et al., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 14.
  8. John Zarobell, Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria: Empire of Landscape (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 3.
  9. Amy Tucker, Visual Literacy About Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002) 226.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Todd Porterfield, The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism (Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998).
  12. Tucker, 231.
  13. Porterfield, 131.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Tucker, 231.