Musée d'Orsay: Black models: from Géricault to Matisse

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse

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Mixed race in literature

Charles Baudelaire Portrait of Jeanne Duval© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Mixed race heritage, a key theme of French Romanticism, is embodied by two figures of the era: Alexandre Dumas and Jeanne Duval. The author of The Count of Monte Cristo, grandson of Marie-Céssette Dumas, an emancipated slave from Saint-Domingue (Haiti), was the focus of many caricatures referring to his origins with varying degrees of cruelty. The novelist openly addressed the theme of slavery in The Adventures of Captain Pamphile (1839).

Gustave Le GrayPortrait of Alexandre Dumas in a Russian outfit© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / DR
The actress Jeanne Duval was probably born in Haiti in about 1827 and became Baudelaire’s mistress and muse at the age of fifteen. Perfect embodiment of the duality of human beings and love affairs she featured in the poet’s drawings before quickly being incorporated into the exotic poems of The Flowers of Evil, certainly Matisse’s favourite poems and probably also Manet’s.

In the 1850s, the photographer Nadar brought the worlds of Dumas and Baudelaire closer together. Although he did not photograph Jeanne Duval, he described her, and Théodore de Banville also mentions her in Mes Souvenirs as “a very tall girl of colour who holds high her superb innocent brown face crowned with a head of tightly curled hair, and whose queenly walk, full of fierce grace, is both divine and bestial.”

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