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

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse

FrÃ?dÃ?ric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, French, 1841 - 1870, 1870, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Frédéric BazilleYoung Woman with Peonie© Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, NGA Images

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse

From the French Revolution to the abolition of slavery in 1848, and from the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1791 to the emergence of the Négritude movement in the 1930s, this period spanning almost a century and a half has witnessed first-hand the tensions, struggles and debates caused by the birth of modern democracy and consequently loaded and nourished the world of images and art. Despite all kinds of objections and obstacles, a black iconography and identity is gradually asserting itself.

Focused on three key events – the abolition of slavery (1794-1848), the era of New Painting (Manet, Bazille, Degas, Cézanne) and the early 20th century avant-gardes – this exhibition offers a new perspective on a topic which has been disregarded for too long: the major contribution of black people and personalities to art history.

Edouard Manet
 oil on canvas
 90 x 113 cm
Edouard ManetJeanne Duval© Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, 2018, photo by Csanád Szesztay
The title of the exhibition seeks to emphasise the different potential meanings of the word “model”, which can be understood both as an “artist’s model” and as an exemplary figure. Many men and women of colour crossed paths with artists and forged relationships with them. The exhibition explores the identity of these neglected figures in the history of modernity and attempts to reinstate their names, reveal their stories, and restore them a visibility.

From a stereotype to an individual, from a not recognized figure to a recognized one, this exhibition intends to show this long process and to cast light on one of the most overlooked and least mentioned areas of art history, thus revealing once again how this discipline acts as a mirror to reflect prevailing ideas and sensitivities, and confirming the powerful sense of continuity which unites both the 19th and 20th centuries and the present day.

Marie Guillemine BenoistPortrait of Madeleine© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot

New perspectives

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.

Study of a Model; Théodore Géricault (French, 1791 - 1824); France; about 1818 - 1819; Oil on canvas; 47 � 38.7 cm (18 1/2 � 15 1/4 in.); 85.PA.407
Théodore GéricaultStudy of a Model, after the model Joseph© Photo Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Géricault and the black presence

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was a teenager when Napoleon I reintroduced slavery in the Caribbean in order to rebuild a powerful French empire in the Americas. The particularly stringent legislation which accompanied this reintroduction (prohibition of interracial marriage, a ban on access to mainland France for black people from the colonies) explains the resurgence of the abolitionist movement to which Géricault belonged. He invested all of his Romantic verve in this cause, depicting a wealth of energetic or doleful black figures.

His correspondence reveals nothing about the men and women of colour who sat for him, but we know that he used the famous model Joseph, from Haiti, who was also represented by Théodore Chassériau. In Géricault’s iconic work The Raft of “The Medusa”, Joseph embodies the bare-chested sailor standing on top of a barrel, waving the scarf which symbolises the last vestige of shared hope.

he painting, which depicts the ill-fated colonial expedition of the frigate Medusa in the summer of 1816 off the coast of modern-day Mauritania, was created in several stages.
Although black figures are conspicuous by their absence in the initial sketch, the final version has three black figures i-e two more than are mentioned in historical accounts. By introducing additional black subjects into his painting, Géricault captures his solidarity with them and provides the abolitionist cause with a potent symbol.

Jean-Baptiste CarpeauxWhy be born a slave?© Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Reims / C.Devleeschauwer

Art against slavery

On 29 March 1815, Napoleon I abolished the slave trade, a decision which was reinforced by Louis XVIII several years later. Despite mounting pressure from abolitionists, the slavery system continued. Successive Bourbon Restoration and July Monarchy governments restricted themselves to implementing reforms.

Painters took a harder line. The Slave Trade by François-Auguste Biard created a stir at the Salon in 1835. Others were bold enough to denounce the suffering of the victims of this inhuman system. One such artist was Marcel Verdier, a student of Ingres, whose painting Punishment with Four Stakes was rejected by the Salon in 1843.

Slavery in the French colonies was not abolished until 27 April 1848, under the fledgling Second Republic. Biard was tasked with commemorating this symbolical measure : black and white figures are depicted together in a painting in which the joy of emancipated slaves, broken chains, and the French flag clearly celebrate the bonds of brotherhood in the new Republican order.
Biard’s huge picture mirrors the anti-slavery arguments of Victor Schoelcher. At the Salon of 1848, sculptor Charles Cordier began to capture the human family in all its unity and unique diversity.




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.”


In the studio

Eugene DelacroixStudy after the model Aspasie© Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole / photographie Frédéric Jaulmes
Artists appear to have recruited the models who posed for them occasionally from the small black population which had settled in Paris in the 19th century. Studio studies offer rich evidence of the presence of a black community in Paris, working primarily in domestic service and the arts and crafts.

Théodore GéricaultStudy of a back© RMN-Grand Palais / Philipp Bernard
In the absence of census data, only a small number of sources exist which can link a first name or nickname to a face. There are very few ways of identifying the various models who posed for artists. Valuable archive material from the École des beaux-arts reveals the age, address, and occasionally the country of origin, of some sitters.

Painted studies depicting these men and women in artists’ studios in the style of intimate and distinctively individual portraits stand in sharp contrast to Salon paintings perpetuating the ambivalent nature of the stereotypes associated with black figures.

Although these depictions capture aspects of the relationship between artists and models, they also demonstrate the plastic experiments which helped to shape a new aesthetic landscape.


Variations on Olympia

Edouard ManetOlympia© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
With the exception of a few very crude caricatures, the black servant figure almost escapes scrutiny in the scandal caused by the presentation of Manet’s Olympia at the Salon in 1865, as critics focused primarily on the painting’s subject matter, which was deemed vulgar, and the lack of idealisation of the female nude.

The “invisibility” of the black woman reveals the conventional element of the depiction (a deferential pose with a bouquet of flowers) which also belongs to a long-standing Orientalist tradition playing on the contrasts and erotic tension created by black and white bodies in close proximity. However, Manet operates a radical shift by opting to represent an image of prostitution in contemporary Paris rather than a fantasy toilette scene in exotic climes. The presence of a black servant – echoing an imaginary aristocratic and colonial world – can be read as an indicator of the high social status of the courtesan, and therefore reinforces the subversive power of the painting.

Paul CézanneA Modern Olympia© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Bazille, who admired Manet, achieves an unusual synthesis between modern Paris and the distant East in La Toilette which was rejected by the Salon in 1870. In his Modern Olympia, which he presented at the first Impressionist exhibition, Cézanne goes behind the scenes of Manet’s painting by introducing a client and giving the servant an active and theatrical role.


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.

3760127 Le Dompteur Noir - poster for the Folies-Bergère by Cheret, Jules (1836-1932) (after); ( Le Dompteur Noir-after poster for the Folies-Bergère by Jules Chéret. 19th century. Advertising show with Delomico, a lion tamer (in French \'belluaire\', lit. \'gladiator\') and lions and tigers. Showing a tiger jumping through a effervescent hoop. Théatre des Folies-Bergère, cabaret theatre/music hall in Paris/ France. Printed by J. Cheret, Paris.
 Dictionnaire Historique et Pittoresque Du Théatre et Des Arts Qui S\'Y Rattachent. Published by Librairie de Firmin-Didot et Cie, Paris, 1885. P. 301
 Artist: Jules Chéret 1836-1932); Lebrecht Music Arts; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories.
Jules ChéretDelmonico, the black tamer. Fantaisies Oller, Music-hall© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

“Black Forces”

Many black troops were mobilised in World War I. In the autumn of 1914, the tirailleurs sénégalais, a black French colonial infantry corps, took part in the conflict. After a period of adjustment, they fought in most of the major offensives, including Verdun and the battle of the Chemin des Dames.

Unlike Germany, which depicted them as cannibal fighters unfairly deployed by the enemy, France moved away from the colonial iconography of the “Savage” and attempted to communicate the image of loyal and valiant soldiers, culminating in the famous laughing black figure used in Banania chocolate drink advertising, which was denounced by proponents of Négritude in the 1930s.

When the United States joined the war in 1917, contingents of African-American soldiers entered the trenches, bringing with them a new style of music – jazz. In 1918, the famous Harlem Hellfighters’ regiment band and their leader James Reese Europe captivated audiences. In the 1920s, this new black community transformed Paris, which was viewed as a cosmopolitan haven for people fleeing racial segregation.
The world of entertainment was given a new lease of life by artists from the United States and the French West Indies, of whom the most famous was the dancer Josephine Baker. A number of venues, films and magazines celebrated performances by black artists.

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Paul CézanneStudy after the model Scipio© Photo João Musa

Voices and counter-voices of the colonial empire

While the colonial conquest was being celebrated with universal Exhibitions and reconstructions of “native” villages, relationships with “black models” were undergoing a significant shift at the turn of the century. An alternative imaginary world began to take shape, notably in response to Gauguin’s first trip to Martinique (1887) and Le Douanier Rousseau’s tropical dream forests.
These idyllic visions of a lost paradise, together with the discovery of African statuary by Derain, Picasso and Matisse in 1906 and 1907, stimulated a new form of stylisation which challenged the purely mimetic relationship with a model.

Picasso replaced the face of one of the five figures in his Demoiselles d'Avignon with a Baoulé mask, and Matisse painted a radical Blue Nude. With the next generation, this aesthetic otherness acquired a political dimension. The Dada and Surrealist movements constructed a fantasy of Africa as an anti-Western, anti-bourgeois model, expressed in Raymond Roussel’s offbeat, poetic work Impressions of Africa or played out in performances such as the fight between Arthur Cravan and African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Felix VallottonAïcha© SHK / Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk. Foto : Elke Walford

The Négritude movement in Paris

Paris in the 1920s succumbed to a craze for jazz and the eroticised bodies of black performers were depicted in many Art deco works. Ephemeral black muses on the bohemian scene, such as Aïcha Goblet and Adrienne Fidelin, were also featured in portraits.

In 1919, the first Pan-African Congress was held in Paris by one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois, who took the first steps towards demanding Black self-determination.

In the 1930s, amid a climate of colonial hegemony and the growing menace of fascism, Négritude in Paris was being championed by the creation of La Revue du Monde noir in 1931 and by the poets Léon Gontran Damas, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who founded the journal L'Etudiant noir in 1935.
Michel Leiris, and George Bataille’s journal Document promoted an ethnographic and sociological approach to African objects, and the Surrealists joined forces with the French Communist Party to organise a rival exhibition to the huge Colonial Exhibition of 1931.

En route to New York in 1941 to escape the Vichy régime, André Breton, accompanied by the painters Wifredo Lam and André Masson, was captivated to discover Césaire’s poem Journal of a Homecoming in Fort-de-France. Together with Masson, he wrote a combined tribute to Martinique and Le Douanier Rousseau entitled Martinique: Snake Charmer (1948).

Henri MatisseDame à la robe blanche© Photo : Rich Sanders, Des Moines, IA. © Succession H. Matisse

Matisse in Harlem

In 1930, Matisse embarked on a long trip to Tahiti, stopping off in the United States. He saw New York for the first time and was fascinated by the skyscrapers, lights and Harlem musicals. He discovered the African-American district of the city, which was experiencing a complete Renaissance, and encountered intellectuals including Du Bois and Alain Locke, musicians such as Louis Amstrong and Billie Holiday, and photographers like James Van der Zee, who were championing modern black urban culture.

Matisse, who had steeped himself in the sounds of jazz from records provided by his son Pierre, a New York gallery owner, frequented the clubs of Harlem, notably the legendary Connie’s Inn. He returned to France imbued with jazz rhythms mingled with an appreciation of the colours and plants of Tahiti.

This experience was the crucible of his last works. From this point forward, he worked with several mixed race models: Elvire Van Hyfte, from the Belgian Congo, who embodied Asia in a fine painting in 1946; Carmen Lahens, from Haiti, who posed for drawings for Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, in a faint nod to the poet’s mistress Jeanne Duval; and also Katherine Dunham, founder of a Caribbean dance company in the late 1940s, who inspired the painter to produce one of his last large cut-outs – Creole Dancer (1951). With its concise and graphic figures, Matisse’s drawing has an affinity with the improvised melody line of jazz.

Edouard ManetOlympia© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

« J’aime Olympia en Noire »

Manet’s Olympia represents a milestone in modern art with its complexity and formal power, which has inspired artists and been deconstructed at will in such diverse forms as Cézanne’s re-readings, Gauguin’s copy of 1891, Matisse’s Odalisques, and the numerous reinterpretations of the Harlem Renaissance, Pop Art and contemporary art.

The twin presence of black and white figures is central to re-readings of the painting. The formal interplay focusing on these two colours and the contrast between reclining and standing poses challenges notions of the ethnic, social and sexual identity of the two women, and relationships between the West and Africa, thus providing a genuine aesthetic resource for future generations of artists.