Previous page


Next page

Delacroix, Orientalism and Romanticism

Mariel Pereda

            The Age of Enlightenment saw a dramatic transformation in the late 18th and early 19th century with the arrival of the Romantic Movement.  An artistic and literary appreciation for scientific reasoning and rationalization was replaced by a new emphasis on emotion and the unknown.

            Romanticism, in its exploration of emotion, confronts the sublime.  Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) describes the power of the sublime to elicit an entirely new set of emotions than the admiration for humans seen in the Enlightenment.  Sublimity emphasizes awe in things unknown, such as nature or the divine.  It differs from the appreciation associated with the Enlightenment in that it involves “some degree of horror.”  Burke offers the sublimity of the ocean as the perfect example.  The ocean is dangerous, powerful, uncertain, seemingly boundless, dark, and there are many things which we are ignorant of in the ocean.  When one looks out on the ocean, there is a sense of “astonishment…that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended.”  The ocean excites our curiosity and deserves our admiration, but it also ignites a sense of terror because of what we do not know.  The Romantic Movement recognizes the power of the sublime to elicit a more animalistic and emotional response than the logic of the Enlightenment.

            Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium-Eater also reflects the increasing fascination with the unknown.  His attempt to describe an experience as unintelligible and unique as his personal opium-use results in a passionate and fairly unscientific account.  De Quincey claims that the first time he used opium, “positive effects…opened before [him] in the abyss of divine enjoyment.”  He goes on to say that in opium he found “the secret of happiness.”  Opium, nor any drug for that matter, is the secret to happiness.  Yet De Quincey takes advantage of our ignorance of opium to create a romantic, picturesque experience for the reader.  His language is both vague and attractive to readers who have no previous experience with opium.

De Quincey’s account also introduces modern readers to the Western perception of the Oriental during this time.  His real life encounter with the Malay, and later his dream interaction, are marked with numerous stereotypes of the “Orientals” –as they were often collectively referred to.  The Malay had come to his home and been greeted by a servant girl at the door.  De Quincey notes that the Malay “had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish” (78).  He is immediately suspicious of the Malay as a sexual predator, assuming without hesitation that he is unable to control his sexual instincts.  De Quincey immediately labels the Malay as less-than-human, almost animalistic.  This perception is obvious in the way De Quincey describes the Malay’s appearance.  His “loose trousers of dingy white” suggest that he is either unable to afford clean clothes or does not care enough to look presentable –both of which would warrant discrimination in European society.  In a culture that equates physical cleanliness with moral purity, the Malay’s dirty clothing would have invited all sorts of negative assumptions of his character.  Also, the Malay’s “fierce, restless” and “fiery” eyes are untrustworthy and contribute to his “ferocious” look (78).

Not only is the Malay uncivilized, but De Quincey also makes it clear that he is not any different than any other Oriental.  If he is not European he is “other”; different Oriental cultures are not worthy of distinction or appreciation on the part of the Westerner.  In an effort to communicate with the Malay, De Quincey recites a few lines from the Iliad, figuring that the Greek language, “in point of longitude, came geographically nearest to an Oriental one” (79).  As a Westerner, De Quincey is prone to think that all Oriental cultures are similar and that they are primitive in nature.  It never occurs to De Quincey that the Malay may understand some English because there is no way an Oriental would be so modern.

De Quincey’s perception of the Oriental is further developed through his dream travels with the Malay.  In each of them, the Malay transports him to a different Asian region.  One night he goes to Africa and witnesses “wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions” and “savage tribes”; another night he experiences the “ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan” (95).  De Quincey sums up his dreams as “unimaginable horror...of Oriental imagery and mythological tortures” (95).

European readers during the Romantic period would have been fascinated by De Quincey’s descriptions of the effects of opium and his dream-state encounters with the Oriental. His stories seem to cross the line between real life and fantasy.  The rush and danger associated with his opium use, mixed with the mystery of his dreams, creates in a sense the perfect Romantic thriller novel.

Edward Said’s book Orientalism talks about the traditionally held views of the Oriental during De Quincey’s time.  For example, Said writes that for Western imperialists, “managing them [the Orientals], although circumstances might differ slightly here and there, was almost everywhere nearly the same…because Orientals were almost everywhere nearly the same” (38).  We saw this in De Quincey’s attempts to communicate with the Malay.  In reality, the Oriental was something completely unknown to the West.  It was mysterious and scary, sublime even.  And because it was different, it was therefore labeled inferior –in every way.  According to Said, words commonly used to describe the Oriental included “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike” (40).  The Oriental was “in need of corrective study” and it was the job of the Western world to do it (41).  Europe’s intellectual and political superiority justified its imperialism over the Oriental.  Westerners knew both themselves and the Oriental, but the Oriental could never know themselves or the West.  The “illogical” and “immoral” Oriental was a definition created by the West in an effort to diagnose the Oriental and create a dichotomy between us and them.  The Oriental was everything bad that the West was not.

.Eugene Delacroix, Death of Sardanapalus, 1827

The various aspects of Romanticism come together in Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827).  The painting is based on the play Sardanapalus by Lord Byron and depicts the death of the king Sardanapalus.  On first glance, the painting causes uneasiness in the viewer that is difficult to articulate.  The scene is both chaotic and confusing.  Women and servants are in poses of great distress as they are being killed on the king’s orders.  In particular, the execution of the nude woman in the lower right hand corner of the painting elicits a range of emotions from the viewer.  We are at the same time both horrified and mystified.  We feel sympathy for her, yet we cannot stop from looking.  The chaos of the scene is further felt in the very organization of the scene.  This is not a regular, straightforward perspective in which we can clearly see the whole of the scene.  There is a disjunction between the foreground and the background.  As for what is going on in the upper right hand corner, it is anyone’s guess.   The people in the scene are arranged around Sardanapalus’ bed in a way that creates a spinning affect as the eye of the viewer moves from one figure to the next.  Even the use of color enhances the disorder of the painting.  One the one hand, Delacroix uses bright exotic colors to excite the viewer.  Yet he is careful not to give everything away.  Delacroix’s use of shadow and space mask what is happening in the background of the painting.  He is therefore making it more difficult for the viewer to understand what is going on and creating a curiosity that extends beyond the boundaries of the scene.

Yet the chaos surrounding the king in his bed does not seem to match his attitude of calm indifference.  Sardanapalus is relaxed and contemplative, seemingly unaffected by the events around him.  He is most likely reflecting on his approaching death.  This quiet and accepting response to death is very romantic, and viewers are meant to admire the king’s reserve.  This is also the case for the way in which the king dies in the play, which is different than the scene in the painting.  At the end of the play, Sardanapalus burns himself with his mistress in a final act of heroism and drama.  This grand show of self-glorification causes readers to admire him for his nobility and fearlessness in the face of death, in the same way viewers admire the king in the painting.

Delacroix’s Sardanapalus also contains notions of the Oriental.  Darker skinned figures line the shadows accompanied by exotic animals.  The animalistic nature of the figures and the blatant sexuality would remind any European viewer of the “immoral” Oriental.  In this sense, the painting seems to serve as a moral checkpoint for Westerners.  It is a reminder that we are civilized and they are not.  Europeans who looked at this painting would immediately judge the Oriental as disorganized, insensitive (as Sardanapalus appears), barbaric, etc.  At the same time though, viewers cannot escape the curiosity associated with the Oriental.  As discussed in both Confessions of an Opium-Eater and Orientalism, the Oriental carries a degree of mystery and sublimity for the Westerner.  There is no doubt that this painting elicits both wonder and fear, both for the 19th century and the modern viewer.


Previous page


Next page