The women behind the most expensive painting ever sold

Everyone’s talking about Les Femmes d’Alger – the Women of Algeria – but I don’t mean flesh-and-bone boss-ladies like Assia Djebar or Khalida Toumi. No, I’m talking about women in the abstract – literally. More specifically, I mean the women of Pablo Picasso’s 1955 masterpiece, which made global news last week when it sold for a record-breaking $179 million to a private collector.

Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) was inspired by Eugene Delacroix’s 1834 painting of the same name. Picasso’s painting was part of a series dedicated to his friend and competitor Henri Matisse, “the master of what he called the Odalisque — exotic paintings of Turkish women in harems.”

Picasso’s work captures all the luxury Matisse’s world within his own cubist world. Jerry Saltz describes Les Femmes d’Alger best:

“Four women. Or perhaps three women, and a painting of another woman, pulse in a graphic field of interior space bracketed by black light on one side, curtains on another, tile floor and patterned carpet below, and coffered ceiling above. […]On the left is a giant, Cyprian-like seated woman. Her voluptuous breasts are corseted by some sort of laced red bodice that makes her a cross between a fertility figure, goddess, Medusa, caryatid, harem figure, and proprietor of this realm and the next. Her veil, headdress, or hair is a labyrinth of yellow, blue, red, and white intertwining coils.”

It is beautiful.

However, Delacroix’s original was part of a movement of Orientalist work sweeping across Europe during the late 18th century through the mid-19th, when colonialism was high and women’s rights were a faraway fantasy. So who are these women Delacroix painted and whom eventually inspired Picasso a century later?

Well, to start, they were wives, possibly mothers. They were likely Muslim, and they would never have interacted with a man like Delacroix without their husband’s permission. The story goes that a man – a convert to Islam from Christianity and an associate of the French in Algeria – let the painter enter his harem to sketch his wives. It was a blessing for the young Romantic who struggled to find women to draw in the male-dominated country; they often wore veils and stayed out of view. “When Delacroix tried, from afar, to draw some Arab women hanging out their washing on a roof terrace, they immediately fetched their husbands.”

So Les Femmes d’Alger became famous for the very fact it gave an unprecedented look into harem life. Unlike its predecessors, this painting was based on something Delacroix had seen and not just his own imaginings.

But Delacroix’s work is also problematic. It romanticizes a reality – or a version of reality – for women in countries like Algeria and Morocco at the time without fully understanding it. And more importantly, Delacroix is an outsider, so he is filtering what he sees to his audience through a distinctly European gaze. And all of this is taking place during a time of colonialism and cultural extraction – so it’s kind of got baggage. As art historian Rose-Marie Hagen explains, “Greece, Turkey, North Africa – for the French, and above all the Romantics amongst them, the Orient was not a geographical place, but rather an imaginary place of escape. […] the Orient was a place you could move freely in a society steeped in mystery and beauty.” Because Orientalist works often failed to capture what was, and instead was steeped in what they believed happened in the privacy of Muslim homes, these paintings can only tell a very narrow story of these women. The reality is that the harem was the woman’s quarter where children ran freely and women socialized; it was not necessarily a place of opulent pleasure for the sole purpose of fulfilling husbands.

Not much is known about the women painted but we can see they have young, fresh faces; they are dressed in golds and silks and patterns, as they sit languidly smoking nargile (tobacco water pipes). They are lovely to look at but they also have a place of privilege in their society, noted by the African slave leaving the quarters they lounge in.

The world of the harem was far more complex than any of us — or Delacroix, or any other Romantic — could have imagined. Now, could he ever have imagined that work based of his would sell for $179 million in the year 2015? Likely not.