Understanding of different gender aspects and their functions is crucial for better interpretation of art. Gender has always been one of the most important concepts in every society making a great impact on the sphere of art. The painting titled Women of Algiers in Their Apartment was created by a famous French artist of the 19th century Eugene Delacroix. This work of art reflects strong gender stereotypes that have been dominating the public opinion at the time and shows that these prevailing ideas about gender roles could have been significantly strengthened by the colonialist attitude toward ethnic groups in Northern Africa.
Women of Algiers in Their Apartment depicts four women in harem. The three women on the floor are probably the wives or concubines of the harem’s owner, and the black woman closer to the right is likely their servant or a slave. The dresses of the three concubines are heavily decorated with ornaments, beads and embroidery. Even their servant, despite the fact that her clothes are much more modest than the dresses of the concubines, is dressed in rich colors. The room is partially dark, and the light from the window is not enough to properly see the figures of these women. The faces of two women are partially covered in shadow, which contributes to the enigmatic atmosphere of the place. However, light plays an important role in depicting the sensuousness of the women. The sun’s rays dominate the part of scene and help the artist to emphasize certain elements and guide the viewer’s gaze. Delacroix paid much attention to the interior of the room and details. In front of the women there is a black hookah that they have been probably smoking. The tiles on the walls have a very sophisticated pattern as well as the frame of the mirror and carpets on the floor. Interestingly, the central part in the background is rather dark. The dark blue case standing there is partially covered with a heavy curtain with gold embroidery. Both the room and the women leave an impression of luxury and idleness.
This work of art is not merely a study of some foreign culture but also a clear manifestation of the gender stereotypes in Muslim society from European perspective. All gender aspects of this painting should be interpreted in accordance with the historic and cultural contexts. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, now exhibited in Louvre, was created in 1834 at the peak of popularity of Orientalism. This tendency emerged after the first Egyptian campaign organized by Napoleon, and for more than a century, France and the rest of Europe had been deeply fascinated with everything oriental. The Muslim harem was one of the most frequently occurring elements in art of that period, and the translation of the Arabian Nights into French intensified these tendencies. The artist’s perspective influences the viewer’s perception of the women whose world has been restricted to one small room. This approach is closely connected with
Bornstein’s (1995) idea: “Gender means class” (p. 21). The author argues that gender is “a system of classification,” and it can be clearly seen in Delacroix’s painting. Women are depicted as a special social group and as passive creatures awaiting their husband with no other purposes in life.
Moreover, Women of Algiers in Their Apartmentis a perfect illustration of the concept of feminine beautification as it is understood by the majority of feminists. Cahill (2003) defines it as “crucial and oppressive moment in an overall patriarchal structure” (p. 42). The concubines or wives painted by Delacroix have to exist in the system created, managed, and regulated by men. They are the objects of feminine beautification as their appearance becomes their main asset that defines their status in patriarchal society. However, in the painting, this reality is even more intensified with the Oriental myth of an extremely beautiful and submissive woman whose only wish and duty is to please a man. The depicted women are not engaged in any type of constructive or creative activity: they sit, wait, talk, and smoke not doing anything useful. They are viewed as “decorative objects” with no other function except embellishing the interior with their presence and bringing their husband pleasure. It proves Mithlo’s idea that gender cannot exist outside culture because gender is the complex system of behavioral patterns shaped by the society. Muslim women were not allowed to play an active role in the social events and mostly were limited to the communication with other women. As a result, this tradition had a great impact on the formation of gender roles in this culture.
When I saw Women of Algiers in Their Apartment for the first time, I was impressed by the talent and skills of the artist. The contrast between shiny and glittering gold ornaments, crystals, beads and softness and darkness of other surfaces made this scene very intriguing. I also admired Delacroix’s decision to make the background center of the image very dark and covered with a curtain: this part is very mysterious. The more I looked at the painting, the more I understood how the artist’s ideas of the Moroccan harem of the 19th century were influenced by the contemporary audience. Men were not allowed to visit harems of other men, but Delacroix was given permission to visit a private harem of one Moroccan. He was even allowed to make some small watercolor sketches that were later used in the process of creating the analyzed painting. Nevertheless, the time spent in the harem was obviously not enough to understand its atmosphere and the life of women there. Therefore, Delacroix had to rely primarily on his fantasy and imagination when reconstructing the scene he saw there. In the process, he was unable to escape the influence of French Orientalism that “promoted” mysteriousness, luxury, and depravity of the Eastern world. Therefore, the impact of cultural stereotypes appears to be significant for interpreting the gender roles in other countries. Even though Delacroix could not be sure that Moroccan women lived in idle luxury, he depicted them in this manner.
To conclude, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment is a very interesting and thought-provoking example of how gender stereotypes are reflected in art. In addition, this painting shows gender roles through the prism of French Orientalism, which attributed mystery, luxury, and eroticism to Eastern cultures. Delacroix depicted a Muslim harem in his painting, but it appears that he also demonstrated how people viewed Eastern women and their functions in family and society. The historic and cultural context of the period and the special relations between the cultures of the artist and the portrayed people also help the audience to understand the main messages of the painting better.