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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.