Benjamin-Constant was a famous representative of Orientalism during France’s Third Republic. Although a remarkable colourist, he remained attached to Academic principles. As a follower of Delacroix, he adopted lively, brilliant brushwork that contrasted with the slick precision of Bouguereau. Benjamin Constant taught at the Académie Julian, where he was thronged by foreign students, including Canadians Suzor-Coté and Peel. A highly sought portraitist subsequent to his portrait of Queen Victoria, Benjamin-Constant’s international reputation explains the presence of major works by him in the collections of Montreal’s banking and railway magnates from the 1880s onwards. Benjamin-Constant visited North America on several occasions. He spent time in Montreal in 1888 to prepare for his participation in the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, ultimately deciding to exhibit this painting which he described as follows: “This picture represents the Alhambra, at Granada, in the midst of Moorish Spain the day after a victory in the year 1300, during which period Musslemans and Christians disputed foot by foot, the possession of Andalusia. A king of Granada comes to look at a number of beautiful Christian captives, seized in the sack of some city.”
Benjamin-Constant had travelled to Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba and Granada in 1871, discovering the Mudejar architecture of the Alhambra, which would serve as a new source of inspiration when depicting the Spain of the sultans of Granada. During this period, history painting underwent a progressive shift where the grand subject began to serve as an anecdotal excuse for spectacular decorative effects. Benjamin-Constant employed the theatrical device of the ceremonial entry on several occasions. In the deep space of the receding arches, the upright, virile poses of the sultan and his men accord with the verticals of the monumental architecture and contrast with the vulnerable bodies of the women sprawled on the ground. The women — streaming hair and tears, faceless yet naked — are put on display like common objects: the terror is suspended.