Exoticism and Symbolism

Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains Eugène Delacroix, Arabs Skirmishing in the Mountains, 1863, 1966.12.1

Many painters of the latter half of the 19th century exulted in pleasures of the senses and the mind. For the impressionists this meant saluting visual delight. They drew encouragement from the mid- and late-century fascination with exotic cultures and foreign places, which stimulated both artistic and literary originality. Eugène Delacroix was France’s foremost romantic painter in the first half of the century and spent time in North African French colonies, which inspired him to paint scenes of animal hunts, foreign soldiers, and brightly-adorned alluring women, often set in orientalist locales. Not only did his work reflect the era's attraction to the unfamiliar, but it also sparked the interest of later artists such as Auguste Renoir (see Odalisque) and Henri Matisse (see Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair) who were drawn to the brilliant color and bodily sensitivity of that artistic manner. These pictures show off color, flesh, and painterly bravado.

Instead of visual or sensual delight, some artists elected to focus less on contemporary subjects and surface appearance, instead meditating on interiority and emotion. Their contemplative pictures often privilege subjectivity over rational order, and their themes frequently address myth, the Bible, or another literary text. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon were two artists who sought to find and express symbolic meaning. Their work can be cryptic, but no less evocative, and its otherworldly quality often draws on viewers’ subjectivity and imagination.

The Favorite of the Emir Nude on a Blue Cushion Rest Pandora