Associate 2007-08

David J. O’Brien

Art History


When French artist Eugène Delacroix first traveled to Morocco and Algeria in 1832, these countries were relatively unknown within European culture. Like many Orientalists, Delacroix envisioned life in North Africa as a place where masculine ideals of bravery and self-sufficiency held sway in an existence lived close to nature; where people were more in touch with basic human emotions; and where the absence of modern worldly ambitions allowed for greater sensuality and indolence.

Such romantic visions contain many standard myths about North African society. Still, the drawings and paintings Delacroix completed during this trip sought to capture an accurate representation of everyday life, and the works he exhibited upon returning to France claimed to offer an account of his lived experience in Morocco and Algeria. Over the course of his career, however, Delacroix’s representations of the region and its inhabitants became more overtly fantastic, and he relied more heavily on the abstract, expressive qualities of his medium.

During his Center appointment, Professor O’Brien will complete research for a book-length study of Delacroix’s depictions of North Africa. He argues that the artist gradually displaced the emotional release he had formerly located in a real place (North Africa) to a more purely imaginary realm. Increasingly, he used the formal effects of painting to suggest the sensual and emotional release he had initially identified in his subject matter, and he encoded ideals of freedom, sensuality, and individualism through his expressive manipulation of paint.

Professor O’Brien relates these changes in Delacroix’s art to colonial developments in North Africa and to broader changes in French visual culture depicting this region. The late 1860s, in the period immediately following Delacroix’s death, saw a rapid decline of North African subjects in avant-garde painting – a culmination of attitudes and beliefs that emerged over the course of Delacroix’s career and shaped his own interpretations of North African subject matter.