Mariano Fortuny arrived in Rome on 19 March 1858 on a two-year grant from the Barcelona "Diputación" or Provincial Council. The appointed period had not yet ended when the Diputación decided to entrust Fortuny with the execution of several paintings depicting the most notable episodes of the war currently being fought in Morocco. Consequently he was provided further financial assistance to enable him to move to North Africa and gather relevant information. In late January 1860, Fortuny left Rome and after a short stay in Barcelona arrived in Tétouan on 12 February. For just over two months the painter worked intensely, producing numerous drawings, watercolours and oil "bozzetti" of Arabs, Catalan volunteers, horses and other animals, landscapes, interiors, buildings and monuments, etc., as well as portraits of chiefs and officers. Much of this extremely interesting material still exists. The landscape "bozzetti" of that first journey to Morocco reveal the young artist’s efforts to capture the intense light of North Africa.
On 23 April he returned to Barcelona, staying there for some months before moving on to Paris and Versailles, where he was able to study Horace Vernet’s great painting "The Battle of Smalah". In the autumn of 1860, he resettled in Rome and began developing his ideas for the pictures he was to paint. In 1861, he took a break from his work to travel to Florence and there saw paintings by the Neapolitan artist Domenico Morelli, an important member of the "Macchiaioli" group, to whose work he was strongly attracted. By the end of that year Fortuny had almost finished the sketch for "The Battle of Wad-Ras". In February 1861 he sent a photograph of it, together with a splendid "Odalisque" (signed and dated in Rome in 1861), to the Barcelona "Diputación", while also applying for further aid to return to North Africa in order to “revive his impressions and endow paintings of the Moroccan War with a possible colour of truth”.
It is obvious that the young painter was not satisfied with the material he had gathered during his first journey and that he regarded his attempts to capture the effects which the powerful North African light had had on him as unsuccessful. It is also likely that through seeing Morelli’s work Fortuny glimpsed another path to achieving the results he desired. The "Diputación" granted him further funding and in September 1862 he left Rome for Morocco, where he stayed throughout October and November.
One result of this second stay in Morocco was "North African Landscape" which, despite the information published in the 1875 Fortuny sale catalogue, cannot be regarded as a view of the environs of Rome. The contours of the land coincide with those featured in several of the sketches and studies mentioned above, and detailed examination reveals that the small figures are wearing "djellabas". Furthermore, as we shall see below, the colour in this oil painting corresponds to characteristics much more typical of the Moroccan landscape.
This work clearly displays the innovations through which the artist managed to bring an intense impression of bright sunlight to an apparently minor composition. Fortuny observed that the extremely dry air bestows a rare crystalline quality on the atmosphere since, in the absence of mist or fog, colours retain their intensity despite distance; he thus traced a dark band near the horizon, on the left side of the painting and darkened the blue of the water towards the background. The swift, nervous strokes were not aimed at following the contours of shapes as they simply produce a vibration of colour all around them. At the same time, the thickly-applied paint breaks up, baring the underlying colours like a veil produced by the measured and precise pressure of a hard bristle brush with little pigment. On the other hand, aware of the human eye’s inability to adapt to sharp contrasts of light, Fortuny virtually omitted detail in the darker areas, although here he did not employ this device to the fullest, as he was to do in some of his Granada watercolours of 1870–71. Similarly, in a few specific points in the painting, such as the right bank of the oued, the darker areas of the bank in the middle of the painting, or the two figures to the left, strokes of pure colours appear (red, green, blue and orange) which, although generally very precise, do not always correspond with the colours as they actually were; these may be the first manifestations of a modelling technique based on colour rather than tonal contrast.
Fortuny used all the methods mentioned above with even deeper conviction in his great painting "The Battle of Tétouan", which always remained in his studio, as he never regarded it as finished. It is a synthesis of what was later called luminarist painting and shows both the rapid development of Fortuny’s style once he had left academic discipline behind and, additionally, his paramount contribution to the lengthy process of research into light effects undertaken by European painters.