This exhibition was quite the talk of the town when it opened in March, and I am sorry it took me so long to go see it. And now it is unfortunately finished, so there’s no chance of going back. I don’t know about other visitors, but for me, the highlight came in the first rooms. Marie Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine, 1800 is one of the first and most exquisite works on display. From its first exposition at the salon in 1800 until its hanging in this exhibition, the painting of the servant of the artist’s brother-in-law was titled La Negresse Noire. Thanks to the research done for this exhibition, she now has a name: Madeleine. I have always loved this painting and often stopped in front of it on my way to see Ingres’ bathing women at the Louvre. The young woman’s confrontation of the spectator with her eyes, the fact that she is sitting in a luxuriously covered arm chair, as well as her allusion to Raphael’s Fornarina (or boulangère) always makes me think of her as the secret revenge on the dominant white male world of her household. Artist and model come together to flout the rules of painting and of social relations – a woman painting a black servant posing with all the richesse of the bourgeoise household would not have been approved of by many.
We all know the importance of black figures in the most famous French paintings – the man carrying the flag on the Raft of the Medusa (who we now know Géricault painted from the model Joseph) and the servant woman carrying flowers to the supine Olympia in Manet’s painting to name just two. And we have all pondered the orientalism of Matisse’s Tahitian women and Baudelaire’s adoration for his young mistress. However, what comes together in this exhibition is the concentrated focus on the black model, particularly by the students attending the Ecole des beaux arts in the nineteenth century. And none of the paintings give any indication that these figures are depicted as white figures with black skin. On the contrary, a whole new colour palette is developed, the luscious effects of light on the black skin, and the demands of definition of the figure are all celebrated. It’s also interesting to see how ideas of beauty were developed in the nineteenth century, particularly when the black body was its focus.
In the following rooms, we find Géricault’s sketches of the torso of the black man rising up with the French flag in hand from The Raft of the Medusa. Géricault’s model was a man named Joseph – no known last name – who posed at the salon for a number of years. Apparently Géricault found Joseph in a troupe run by an acrobat – Madame Saqui — and became his model of choice, even after having introduced him to the Ecole des Beaux Arts as a model. In one sketch, Géricault’s sensitive drawing of the model’s back is stunning for its observance of the colour of his skin, beautifully depicting its contours under the falling light. Like Délacroix, Géricault revels in the opportunity to work with new colours and cloth in his portraits of Joseph and his other black models. The light effects on the dark skin present new possibilities of experimentation with and exploration of their medium.
Not all of the works on display are great paintings, and thus, we can be forgiven for walking past them in the Louvre on any other night. Nevertheless, here they are critical documents in the narrative of France’s abolition of slavery. Most notably, we learn of the compassion of the artist for the black slaves. Along these lines, one of the most disturbing images in the exhibition is Marcel Antoine Verdier’s impressive, Le Châtiment des quatre piquets dans les Colonies, 1849. A lithe young black male body lies face down, chained to the ground. His arms and legs splayed as one of his own raises the whip that will come down on his back. A young white family watches on the left, and another slave looks to comfort the little girl who is frightened by the scene before her. The image is horrifying because there is no evasion of what is going on here. The man splayed, face down on the ground is isolated in the centre of the image and we cannot escape confrontation by his fate.
As I say, there are some not so remarkable paintings, but also some amazing old photographs of black and white prostitutes. We note the difference of the black women thanks to their exotic dress—but not photographic representation—thereby witnessing the orientalism that comes to the fore at the end of the nineteenth century. The photographs also show a stereotyping of black sexuality: audacious, available and larger than life. Similarly the photographs of images of black models posing for students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts are horrifying with the white male students ogling their black models.
Once the exhibition moves out of the nineteenth century, I did not find it to be as revelatory, primarily because of the coming together of colonialism, slavery and the revolution as the inspirations for artists in the first half of the nineteenth century century. Of course, there are Cezanne’s images and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal inspired by his mistress. And Josephine Baker who takes back her sexuality and her body on the stage, but still within the frame of entertainment in the 1920s. Nevertheless, the early artistic treasures, together with the historical details make for a compelling and fascinating documents, if not always great works of art.