About five years ago, I was in London while a curious exhibition called “The Orientalists” was on at the Royal Academy. There were a few rather fine Delacroixs at the start, and then room upon room of veiled women, fierce warriors, picturesque streetscapes, and naughty glimpses—certainly imaginary— into the seraglio. Except for the Delacroixs and a very few others, the pictures were florid, highly polished, and loaded with oddly unconvincing detail. Most of the show was pretty second-rate and since almost nothing had much to do with the North Africa that I knew, it wasn’t even enjoyable at the level of the travel poster. But in the last room, everything changed: three miraculous landscapes by Matisse seemed effortlessly to distill the light, the colors, even the smells of North Africa.

Yet, especially in the context of the exhibition, the Matisse landscapes were surprising. There was none of the...

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