An orientalist representation of an Algerian village

An orientalist representation of an Algerian village

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Title: A street in El-Aghouat.

Author : FROMENTIN Eugène (1820 - 1876)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 142 - Width 102

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Chartreuse Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved website

Picture reference: 93-002462-02

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: June 2008

Historical context

Discovering new spaces.

Napoleon III’s interest in Algeria was late, but in 1859 the conquest of the territory was very advanced. French domination is no longer confined to a coastal strip as in the 1830s: it has gained inland.
In the movement of orientalist painters, Fromentin tries to represent the landscapes but also the customs, the economic and social activities of the inhabitants newly submitted to France. His testimony is also literary since he delivers travel memories in works such The Trip to Algeria or A year in the Sahel at the end of the 1850s. Both in his painting and in his writings, this artist (whom an early death will deprive of an entry to the French Academy) manages to give his vision of Algeria in the mid-19th centurye century.

Image Analysis

A territory with a hostile appearance.

Eugène Fromentin highlights the desert aspect by favoring the mineral side of the scene.
The left part, the most important, presents a street flooded with sun and heat. The light colors of the houses and the sky reflect the intensity of the radiation. The shadows of the timber on the walls, almost vertical, testify to the height of the sun in the sky. Although visually absent, the sun is everywhere on this canvas.
Indeed, even in the right part, that in the shade, the overwhelming feeling of the inhabitants, their inaction and their will not to risk themselves in the light are testimony to the oppressive heat. Fromentin knows how to play on the contrast by confronting the lack of activity of these characters with the agitation of the man on the left, located in the sun, insisting on finding shelter.
Besides nature’s hostility, reinforced by the disturbing presence of scavengers, the painting also reflects the poverty of the village: the constructions are rudimentary both in their architecture and in the choice of materials (certainly adobe); the street is unpaved, its ground is cracked due to the aridity; no activity comes to brighten up the place, contrary to the Muslim urban tradition making the streets the centers of commercial life.

Interpretation

El Aghouat, a gateway to the desert.

Eugène Fromentin is part of the orientalist movement but unlike other works of this pictorial theme, the Algerian reality is far from being magnified in this painting. We do not notice the refinement of oriental civilizations, the richness of the outfits, the haughty allure of the inhabitants, yet often highlighted by the orientalists.
This painting presents internal Algeria as a hard country, in which the living conditions of the natives are difficult. The street, which travelogues present as the economic and social heart of the Muslim city, is asleep here. Indeed, far from Algiers, the coast or the Atlas mountains, El Aghouat constitutes a gateway to the unknown, to an immense space still imperfectly controlled by the settlers: the Sahara.
This painting generates a great curiosity for regions with such a unique climate and landscape. This representation brings the spectators to take a keen interest in Algeria because such a vision cannot leave indifferent at the beginning of the years 1860. Orientalism is not confined to a positive vision of the conquered territories but also rests on all the elements which differentiate the Orient from Western Europe. As such, more negative images such as the oppressive heat, these shipwrecked inhabitants at the gates of the desert also contribute to the fascination of Europeans for the conquered territories.

  • Algeria
  • Orientalism
  • overseas

To cite this article

Vincent DOUMERC, "An orientalist representation of an Algerian village"


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