More than fifty years elapsed between the first abolition of slavery in the French colonies and the second abolition proclaimed in April 1848 by the fledgling Second Republic.
The first abolition decree on 4 February 1794 was revolutionary in two respects, granting full French citizenship to emancipated slaves without distinction on the grounds of colour. For France in Year II of the French Republican Calendar, this was an attempt to acknowledge the victorious slave rebellion on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) led by Toussaint-Louverture in 1791, and to rally this island threatened by foreign fleets to the Republic.
Napoleon I reintroduced slavery in 1802, but the troops he sent to Saint-Domingue met with stiff resistance. On 1 January 1804, the independent island became the Republic of Haiti, “the first black nation”, as Aimé Césaire liked to say.
The historical watershed of the French Revolution facilitated the emergence of portraits of emancipated black individuals such as the famous Jean-Baptiste Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet and Madeleine by Marie-Guillemine Benoist.
Although these works fitted into the artistic space created by the contemporary political and social revolution, they nevertheless reflected the ambiguities of the age. The original catalogue for the Salon of 1800 featuring the Portrait de Madeleine did not reveal the domestic status nor the first name of the model nor the intentions of the artist, which are still the subject of debate to-day.