Musée d'Orsay: Ernest Barrias The Alligator Hunters

Ernest Barrias
The Alligator Hunters

Nubians, also called The Alligator Hunters
Ernest Barrias (1841-1905)
Nubians, also called The Alligator Hunters
Plaster high relief
H. 580; W. 280; D. 100 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Daniel Arnaudet

Les Nubiens dit aussi Les chasseurs d'Alligators [The Nubians also called The Alligator Hunters]

Like Jules Coutan's Eagle Hunt on the reverse, this high relief was designed for the façade of the anthropology gallery in the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris. The final bronze relief is still in place in the rue Buffon. The idea was to represent 'the human races' and Barrias chose 'African type' figures. This kind of work echoes the ethnographic sculptures that Charles Cordier had produced over thirty years earlier.

The details of the animals and plants, such as the scales on the alligator or the prickles on the cacti, are rendered with naturalistic precision. But Barrias staged the scene in the manner of the 'human zoos' of his time. The sculptor obviously had in mind an attraction which had been immensely popular in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in 1878, in which Nubians wearing loincloths mimed hunting scenes. The suspense was unbearable: would the man with the spear snatch the woman from the alligator's jaws? Would the children be saved? This high relief, which mingles an imaginative evocation of primitive times with the lifestyles of the populations discovered in the course of the colonial expeditions, does not escape the common stereotypes of the time in this type of representation.