Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle
Théodore Chassériau, French, 1819–1856
Oil on wood
Canvas or panel: 11 9/16 × 14 5/8 in. (29.4 × 37.1 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
SUBJECT AREASocial Studies
Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
At the age of 11 Théodore Chassériau began studying art in the studio of the great neoclassical painter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). Ingres taught Chassériau an approach to art used by most 19th-century Neoclassicists that emphasized line and structure, and highly composed and idealized historical and mythological scenes and portraits. However, by the 1840s Chassériau began to concentrate more on color than creating exact compositions, characteristic of another art movement that was occurring at the same time, Romanticism. Romantic art emerged from a philosophy that emphasized individualism and human emotions, just as it rejected the harmony and balance at the center of neoclassical art.
In the 1840s Chassériau, like other Romantic artists, traveled in North Africa, an area few artists had ever considered for inspiration before. Spending two months in Constantine, Algeria, Chassériau was intrigued by the lifestyle, the lavish dress, and the religious devotion of the people he encountered and made numerous drawings and paintings covering all aspects of their daily life. Because of its Near Eastern influence, Chassériau’s distinctive style during this period was called Orientalism.
Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle was painted from multiple sketches that Chassériau created during his time in Algeria. In this painting, the subjects are seen lounging in a harem, a section of a house in Muslim culture that is reserved exclusively for women. The gazelle that is held on a leash by the young girl is an exotic domestic pet found mainly in East Africa. The lavish and richly colored garments and furnishings indicate wealth and status. Because the harem was such a forbidden and mysterious place for men, this voyeuristic scene of Arab women at leisure was a popular theme of Orientalism.
Chassériau sets a sensual and exotic tone with hues of oranges, yellows, and pinks that are contrasted with deep greens and purples. The warm palette is applied with loose brushstrokes that add depth and create a shimmering effect on the layered garments worn by the women. A touch of melancholy in the scene is typical of Chassériau’s strain of Orientalism, a distinctive note among the many “harem” paintings that had flooded the market by the end of the century.
Romantic artists of the 19th century were painting in an era of several emerging styles and movements that included Neoclassicism, Impressionism, Realism, and Symbolism. Romanticism, which began in Germany and England in the early 1770s, had swept through Europe by 1820, affecting art, poetry, drama, dance, and music. Considered one of the most widespread and influential artistic movements since the middle ages, Romanticism was also influential in political and religious circles. Romanticism was a direct reaction to the rationalism of the 18th-century’s Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized the power of reason and fundamentals of science and math. Romantic artists favored emotion and intuition, the subjective and the personal, as well as the exploration of the irrational, and began to freely express their own personal emotions without applying any specific extrinsic value to them. Chassériau’s style and belief in free expression made him one of the leading artists of the Romantic Movement.
- Look closely at these women’s dress and surroundings. What do those things suggest about their status? Where might they be?
- Look at the women’s faces and body language. What are they feeling? What are they thinking?
- Determine how Chassériau applied the paint. How would you describe his brushstrokes? Do you think he spent a long time on them, or not?
- Analyze the colors in this painting. How would you describe them, as a whole? Where is the color scheme interrupted? What do you feel when you look at them?
- Chassériau traveled to North Africa for artistic inspiration, and then sold paintings like this to a primarily European audience. How does that information change your understanding of the painting? Do you think Chassériau was painting an accurate representation of what he saw?
- These women were depicted in a harem, a section of the house in the Muslim culture of North Africa that is open only to women. What does it mean that Chassériau, a man, was in the harem? What significance do you think this held for his European audiences?
- Chassériau was trained by the famous Neoclassicist, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, to paint mythological scenes with lifelike, perfecting, dramatic technique. Chassériau was part of a group that rebelled against this norm. How can you see his rebellion against perfection and mythology in this painting? What did he choose to focus on instead?
Study the Romantic Movement that took place in Europe in the 19th century and explain why this painting is considered Romantic art. Also research the daily life of Muslim women and the purpose of the harem.
Apply the knowledge you gain from your research to write a story about the woman and the girl in this painting. What role does the gazelle play?
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