Painted circa 1856-58, this highly focused tableau, brimming with energy, epitomises Delacroix's dynamic North African subjects, blending his first-hand experience of Morocco and his own romantic vision. Leaning from his rearing horse, its eyes shining and harness and stirrups glistening, a cloaked combatant takes two attackers, lying in ambush, by surprise. One lies wounded on the ground, the other cowers in defence as his opponent takes aim with his musket. The rider's mounted companion, ahead of him, turns his head back towards the action.
Delacroix was already an established artist, with Salon successes to show for it, when, at the age of thirty, he was invited to join a diplomatic delegation to Morocco led by Charles de Mornay, who had been summoned by the king, Louis-Philippe, to appear before the Sultan of Morocco, Moulay Abd er-Rahman. The journey, taking in Tangiers, Meknes, Oran, and Algiers, lasted six months, from January to July 1832. Delacroix, who was not directly involved in the negotiations, took full advantage of his freedom, hungrily recording his impressions as drawings and sketches, often with painstaking precision, for fear of not remembering every detail after returning home.
The North African journey proved thrilling to Delacroix and heralded a whole new departure in his work. First and foremost Morocco would provide an endless array of subjects that would dominate his work for the rest of his career. 'The picturesque is here in abundance. At every step one sees ready-made pictures, which would bring fame and fortune to twenty generations of painters,' he wrote in a letter to Armand Bertin written from Meknes on 2 April 1832 (Jean Stewart, ed. and trans., Eugène Delacroix. Selected Letters 1813-1863, New York, 1971, p. 192, translated from A. Joubin, ed., Correspondence générale d'Eugène Delacroix, Plon, Paris, 1935-38). Between 1834 and 1859 he showed some 14 North African subjects at the Paris Salon, beginning with Les Femmes d'Alger in 1834.
Another lesson drawn from Delacroix's experiences in North Africa and which fed his romantic imagination was his discovery of the unique light and colours of the south. 'Come to Barbary,' he wrote to Villot on 29 February, 'you will experience the exquisite and extraordinary influence of the sun, which gives penetrating life to everything' (Stewart, p. 186). The sumptuous palette in Le Combat is itself symbolic of the fundamental 'otherness' of the scene and the setting.
Notwithstanding their North African costumes, the pyramidal form of riders and horses is a quintessentially classical construct, borrowed from the Venetian Renaissance. And this is key to perhaps the most important legacy of the North Africa trip: it allowed Delacroix to synthesise classical tradition, the basis of his artistic training, with a new-found exoticism that so touched his romantic temperament. Unlike David or Corot, Delacroix never went to Rome to complete his education; for him the Africa trip was as formative as Rome was for them.
It is paradoxical, given Delacroix's close affinity with the Orient, that as his career progressed, he placed less and less importance on factual accuracy, and ever greater emphasis on his idea that 'Le Beau est le Vrai idéalisé'. Le Combat, painted over twenty years after his return from Morocco, may evoke the atmosphere of the place, but much of the painstaking detail he recorded in his drawings is now absent. More important for Delacroix was the creation of an aesthetic vision. Increasingly, he eshewed in the work of later Orientalist painters the very verisimilitude to which he himself had attached so much importance during his journey.
By the time he painted the present work, Delacroix let his imagination take the lead, even declaring: 'I began to make something tolerable of my African journey only when I had forgotten the trivial details and remembered nothing but the striking and poetic side of the subject. Up to that time, I had been haunted by this passion for accuracy that most people mistake for truth,' Delacroix wrote in his Journal on 17 October 1853 (Hubert Wellington, ed., Lucy Norton, trans., The Journal of Eugène Delacroix: A Selection, London, 1951, p. 198).
As Lee Johnson points out, the original composition has been extended vertically by about 3 cm at the top, sometime after 1886 (in the sales up until 1886 through which the work passed, the dimensions were given as 23 by 35 cm.). A line across the sky marks the end of the paper and the beginning of the painted gesso strip, pointing to the sheet having been laid down, possibly as late as the early twentieth century, and the excess panel painted in.
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