The male figures in this drawing would appear to represent Arnavuts (or Arnauts), Albanian soldiers used by the Pasha of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali, as the elite of his regular army. Himself of Albanian descent, Muhammad ‘Ali took power in Egypt in 1805, and used his Arnavut troops to secure his control over the country. Predominantly Muslim, Arnavuts were a warlike mountain people from the region of Epirus, in the northwestern part of the Ottoman Empire. They were described by a later 19th century visitor to Cairo: ‘Their costume is artistically disheveled, their costly weapons as glittering as they are inoffensive, their proud and disdainful poses, their slightest gestures, everything about them seems to have been studied in its effect.’
Albanians were to be found throughout the Near East and were particularly noted for their elaborate dress. In a letter to his mother, written from Epirus in 1809, the poet Lord Byron – who employed a number of Arnavuts as his personal guards - praised the Albanian costume as ‘the most magnificent in the world, consisting of long, white kilt, gold-worked cloak, crimson velvet gold laced jacket and waistcoat, silver mounted pistols and daggers’. He adds that he also bought some of these costumes for himself. A contemporary of Byron’s further noted that ‘The Albanians or Arnauts...are extremely fond of gold and silver ornaments in their dress...The wealthier Arnauts have the outer vest of velvet and gold, richly interwoven with elegant ornaments...The breeches which are white are tied below the knees with a coloured garter...’
The present sheet may be dated to the early 1820’s, when Eugène Delacroix was particularly interested in the costumes and recent history of Greece and Asia Minor. Like many artists and writers of his day, Delacroix was a fervent supporter of the Greek uprising against Turkish domination that took place between 1821 and 1832. In January 1824 he began his large painting of The Massacres at Chios, intending to exhibit it at the Salon later that year, and it may be noted in passing that the standing figure at the left of this drawing is similar in appearance to the wounded soldier at the left of the painting, today in the Louvre.
For this important canvas, as well as for a number of other, smaller works with figures in Greek or Turkish dress painted by Delacroix between 1823 and 1826, the artist was careful to accurately depict particulars of local costume. To this end he borrowed some costumes from the painter and sculptor Jules-Robert Auguste, and also copied details from books on Oriental and Near Eastern costumes in the Bibliothèque Nationale. The figures in the present sheet are, in fact, derived from just such a book; Joseph Cartwright’s Selection of the Costume of Albania and Greece, published in London in 1822. Cartwright was a British marine painter who lived for several years in the Ionian Islands, and made a large number of drawings of local costumes and scenery. On his return to England he published Views in the Ionian Islands in 1817 and, five years later, Selection of the Costume of Albania and Greece. The latter was illustrated with full-page colour prints engraved by Robert Havell after Cartwright’s original drawings, and it is from these that Delacroix took inspiration when working on the present sheet.
The seated figure holding a long pipe at the centre of the drawing is taken from plate I of Cartwright’s book, simply entitled ‘An Albanian’, while the standing man at the left appears on plate IV, above the caption ‘An Albanian of Jannina’. Similarly, the woman at the bottom of the sheet is found on plate VIII of the book, accompanied by a quotation from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
A further development of these studies is seen in a finished watercolour by Delacroix in a private collection in Athens, in which the two male figures at the left and centre of the present sheet reappear, placed closer together and in a landscape setting. More highly finished than the present sheet, the Athens drawing must have been derived from it, and was probably intended as an independent composition.