In 19th century western art, the archetypal image of the oriental woman is that of the passive odalisque of the harem, whereas the man was embodied in the haughty warrior, courageous but cruel. In this respect, these Arab Chiefs might be considered the "masculine" side of another of Chassériau's paintings at the Musée d'Orsay: Tepidarium. Both refer to a stereotypical view of the Orient, but a view that was reworked by the painter after his visit to Algeria in the summer of 1846.
The combat plunges us into a world without pity, where the hatred and violence of the challenge can be read in the way these two warriors weigh each other up. In the foreground, two horsemen confront each other in a duel to the death, whilst a body lies on the ground with a bloody dagger still embedded in its torso. In the background, fighting continues, and bodies pile up. There is equally a contrast between the warm and cold colours of the tunics worn by the chiefs. Situating one warrior on land and the other in water further reinforces the confrontation.
Exhibited at the 1852 Salon, Arab Chiefs provoked a heated debate. To his detractors, Chassériau was an "imitator". One is reminded particularly of the The Combat of Giaour and Hassan by Delacroix (1826, The Art Institute of Chicago). Just three years later, when the painting was exhibited again in the 1855 Universal Exhibition, the critics took a very different view. Théophile Gautier who in 1852 had considered the work to be "more of a preparatory sketch than a finished painting", this time thought that the painting "while capturing the very essence of Arab customs, combines a most beautiful style with very accurate local colour".