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Title: Ali Ben Ahmed, [...], followed by his escort in sight of the city of Constantine.
Author : CHASSERIAU Théodore (1819 - 1856)
Creation date : 1845
Dimensions: Height 325 - Width 260
Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.Full title: Ali Ben Ahmed, last Khalifa of Constantine, chief of the Harakta tribe, followed by his escort in sight of the city of Constantine - pictured during his visit to Paris in 1845.
Storage location: National Museum of the Palace of Versailles (Versailles) website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot
Picture reference: 01-003989 / MV5407
Ali Ben Ahmed, [...], followed by his escort in sight of the city of Constantine.
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot
Publication date: June 2008
Eyes turned to the East
Since 1830, the country has embarked on the conquest of Algeria. Inaugurated by Charles X, continued by Louis-Philippe Ier, this colonial adventure takes place in a difficult military context. In the orientalist surge affecting French painting of the Restoration and the July Monarchy, it occupies a preponderant place.
The nobility of a soon conquered population
The wealth of the country is revealed by the clothes of the characters: the gold embroidery on a midnight blue velvet or silk tunic, a cape also embroidered with intricate patterns. The harness of the Caliph's mount reinforces this impression with the luxurious decoration of the saddle and the blinkers.
Visually, this painting is divided into two parts: the lower part evokes movement and the upper part calm. Indeed, on the lower half the horses are thoroughbreds with sudden reactions. On the other hand, they are perfectly trained as shown by the posture in step with that of the caliph. The synchronization of the movements of the front legs of the two horses on the right reinforces this impression of vigor but also of mastery. In contrast, the upper part of the work highlights the calm of the characters. Faced with the fury of their steeds, the caliph and his retinue keep a princely allure. The glances turned towards the painter and the spectator translate this serenity.
Faithful to the values of romanticism to which it is closely linked, Orientalism brings into play the various senses. The sight of course, but also the hearing with the neighing of the horse in the background and the sound of hooves pounding the ground. The sense of smell is no exception due to the dust emanating from the footsteps of thoroughbreds. The touch is made thanks to the variety of fabrics, the horses' coat and the wind carrying the mane of the caliph's mount.
While Algeria is not yet pacified, this painting, far from representing the enemy as a barbarian, emphasizes the greatness of soul of the "native" leaders.
The fascination for an Orient in the process of conquest
Throughout Orientalist painting, the portrayal of Algeria and its people is always marked with respect and fascination. Far from the arguments justifying in the second half of the XIXe century, the civilizing role of French colonization, the 1830s insisted on the contrary on the nobility of the North African peoples.
Of course, Ali Ben Ahmed has chosen to support France, but the same representations exist on "the enemy" Abd El-Kader. In addition to an artists' fascination with oriental colors and patterns, this artistic choice can also be explained by the desire to magnify the adversary or at least the conquered people. Rich fabrics, proud frames, dignity of attitudes, ethnic diversity of the peoples conquered thanks to the presence of a black rider in the background all contribute to an accumulation of rewarding elements. Moreover, a negative view of the vanquished does not enhance the conqueror by suggesting that victory turned out to be easy.
This submission of Algeria, personified by the Caliph of Constantine, is symbolized by the presence around his neck of a cross of the Legion of Honor, which this character was granted during the reign of Louis-Philippe. This distinction therefore brings Ali Ben Ahmed among the servants of France but also among those worthy of honor. Once these elements are taken into account, it is obvious that the painting brings into play an oriental decorum, insisting on the greatness of the peoples and the newly conquered territories but also on their submission to France.
- colonial conquest
- colonial history
- Louis Philippe
- equestrian portrait
To cite this article
Vincent DOUMERC, "Ali Ben Ahmed, Caliph of Constantine, during the French conquest of Algeria"