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

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse

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On the stage

Félix NadarMaria the Antillean© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Black personalities began to make an appearance in the world of entertainment and the circus in the early 19th century. They included a number of performers from the United States and the Caribbean. Joseph, originally from Saint-Domingue, was spotted by Géricault in a troupe of acrobats in Paris. Maria Martinez, a musician from Havana, and the two American performers Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge and piano virtuoso Blind Tom, tried to carve out careers in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The Parisian stage, and the circus in particular, exerted a powerful allure for black artistes born in America in the late 19th century. Posters and articles confirm the popularity of American acts such as the fearless wild animal tamer Delmonico and the aerialist Miss La La, whose extraordinary feats of strength inspired Degas to produce a painting with an equally breath-taking approach to framing the scene. These acts differed in style from the extraordinary physical performance of the clown Rafael from Havana. Adopting the name Chocolat, he played the traditional Auguste role, the foil to Footit’s tyrannical whiteface clown. The duo inspired several works by Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as advertising material, toys, and puppets. They were filmed by the Lumière brothers for the Universal Exhibition in 1900.

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