Today, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH) will unveil one of its newest acquisitions by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). Painted between 1833 and 1834, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment is the first of three copies the artist created of the scene and after it was thought to be lost, the work has made its way into the MFAH’s collection and will be on view.
A later version of the painting currently hangs in the Louvre and it has inspired artists ever since, including Gauguin, van Gogh, and particularly Picasso who painted more than a dozen renditions of it. Though smaller than Delacroix’s canvas of the same subject at the Parisian institute, the MFAH’s version is no less stunning. ‘We didn’t know he created a first version of the composition,’ Gary Tinterow, director of the MFAH, told The New York Times. ‘It shows us how Delacroix composed in an additive fashion.’ According to the MFAH, the painting will now go on view indefinitely.
For nearly 170 years, though, the painting was thought to be lost. At age 32, Eugène Delacroix partook in a diplomatic mission to North Africa soon after France invaded in 1830. The mission inspired the scene Delacroix produced in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, which depicts two women enrobed in swaths of richly coloured fabric in an ornate, low-lit room. The subject matter, to Delacroix’s European contemporaries, would have been intriguing because he portrayed people and cultures unknown to most people in Europe at the time. After he completed the painting, it was purchased from the artist by Comte de Mornay, who led the North African mission. In 1850, the painting was sold and it disappeared leading to the assumption that it was, in fact, lost. Delacroix did go on to paint two more versions of the painting, one which is a much later copy and now a part of the Musée Fabre’s collection in Montpellier, and the other, is, of course, in the Louvre’s.
Then, in 2018, art dealer Philippe Mendes was contacted by a collector in Paris. The private collector had owned the painting for some time and kept it in a Paris apartment but for some time had suspected it to be a Delacroix. Through Medes’ research, he found proof of the painting that had been in the possession of Mornay. The painting was authenticated by Virginie Cauchi-Fatiga, an expert on the artist, after an extensive bout of radiographic studies and research.
After its authentication, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment was purchased by the MFAH for an undisclosed amount. The work, and it’s later versions, have evoked criticism alongside praise as noted by Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic for The New York Times, who said: ‘Criticisms that this and similar works amplify the male gaze with colonialist power dynamics are well deserved, but the scale and self-containment of these women are welcome in a show where so many are presented for display, abducted or killed.’
The work, thus, is one that toes the line between critique and praise and now, for the first time in so many years, will be on view for the public to decide where, in relation to that line, they stand.