Tan Choon-Ying, Envisioning a Romantic Tragedy:
Delacroix’s Dramatic Images of Othello

Delacroix’s unmistakable enthusiasm for Shakespeare is evidenced by his numerous works illustrating scenes from Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, which clearly reflect Shakespeare’s popularity in nineteenth-century France. Indeed, French writer and arts critic Stendhal proposed, in 1823, that Shakespeare’s tragedies were suitable for adaptation in creating a new Romantic tragedy for contemporary French audiences as an alternative to classical Greek tragedies, because what England experienced at the end of the sixteenth century was not too different from the French socio-political upheavals at the turn of the nineteenth century—an unsettling period characterized by factions, punishments and conspiracies. For, according to Stendahl, moments of complete illusion—that occurred frequently in Shakespeares tragedies—brought about great dramatic pleasure which appealed more to the new generation than the epic pleasure of Classical plays. Delacroix would have encountered several versions of Othello over the years during which he produced numerous images (dated between 1825 and 1858) depicting four key scenes from the tragedy. In particular, Rossini’s Otello, the Paris premiere of which he attended at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1821, as well as Shakespeare’s Othello in London in 1825. Delacroix’s open admiration, not only for Shakespeare, but also for Rossini, has created a strand of scholarly debate as to whether he was portraying Shakespeare’s or Rossini’s version of Othello. While Delacroix’s drawings and paintings clearly refer to scenes from the opera, he used the English spelling of “Othello” and also Shakespeare’s name for Desdemona’s father—Brabantio instead of Elmiro in the opera—hence the source of confusion. It cannot be ignored that the sustained appeal of this tragedy through the centuries lay in the deliberate casting of Othello as a dark-skinned, high-ranking general who was not Muslim but Christian at once challenging audience’s racial, social and religious prejudices towards the Other. In fact, Othello’s Moorish origins very likely piqued Delacroix’s interest in portraying this tragedy, as it gave the artist an opportunity to demonstrate his first-hand knowledge of the oriental world—which had become his favorite theme after he visited Morocco in 1832. Also, Delacroix might have identified with Othello’s paradox of being a hero-victim. The triumphal opening of the opera hailing Otello’s successful military campaign contrasts sharply with his suicide at the end. Stendhal expressed most compellingly that “the development which takes place within the soul of Othello” was what he found appealing about this tragedy. The range of intense emotions ranging with Othello— jealously, vengeance, despair and regret—must have similarly struck a chord with Delacroix’s Romantic sensibilities.