Exotic themes, and in particular those depicting the harems of the Orient, were extremely popular in the French painting of the 19th century. Delacroix had had the opportunity to visit a harem on his journey to Africa in 1832 and had been greatly impressed. He wrote in his diary: "It is beautiful! It is as it was in Homer's time! Woman in the gynaeceum looking after children, weaving wool or embroidering marvelous textiles. This is woman as I understand her!" The oil painting was shown at the 1834 Salon and bought by Louis-Philippe, a great admirer of the painter. The same subject is represented in various works by Delacroix's great adversary, Ingres, but the approach is totally different. Delacroix's interest is focused chiefly on the brilliant colors, rendered with brushstrokes loaded with paint and an insistent chiaroscuro that investigates the movements of the light: look at the figure in the middle, with her body fully illuminated and the head in semidarkness, or the gleam of the objects in the background and behind the half-closed door. The composition is asymmetrical, with the oblique perspective of the rear wall and the door bordered in bright red, and the contrast between the black woman standing on the right and the reclining female figure on the left (traditionally identified as a Parisian woman called Elise Boulanger). Baudelaire wrote of the painting: This little poem guides us toward the edges shrouded in sadness." The success of the composition lasted right up to the 20th century, and Picasso painted fifteen variations of it.
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