Home > Personal Posts > Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

Black models: from Géricault to Matisse – An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. 

I have attended a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. It takes the visitors through a part of the history of black French people from the French Revolution to the 1930s.

The exhibition focuses on black models in painting and takes detours through literature and other arts. I rented the audio guide because I knew that some of the paintings were commented by Lilian Thuram and Ab El Malik. Thuram is a former football (soccer) player who won the World Cup in 1998. He’s bright, articulated and fights against racism. Abd al Malik is a rap singer, one with excellent lyrics.

The exhibition has three main sections: one from the Revolution until the abolition of slavery, one about blacks and art in the 19th century, one about the beginning of the 20th century.

The slavery times.

In 1794, the young French Republic abolished slavery in the colonies. Actually, it was only applicable in Saint Domingue, French Guyana and Guadalupe. It remained enforced in La Martinique (then occupied by the British) and at the Mascareignes (now La Réunion & Mauritius). It was never legal in the Nouvelle France. (Québec, Acadia and Louisiana). First black députés were at the parliament.

Napoléon 1st re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802 and abolished the slave trade in 1815. Nothing changed during the Restauration (Monarchy) and in 1848, the Second Republic abolished slavery in France for good this time. 250 000 slaves were emancipated. That’s for history.

Some artists like Géricault or Verdier used their art to fight against slavery. See Le châtiment des quatre piquets dans les colonies.

This is such a normal scene for the colonies that a white woman is there with her child. The banality of it makes it even harder to contemplate. Verdier wasn’t allowed to show his painting at an official exhibition.

Some like Biard put their painting at the service of government propaganda. See here, Biard’s Abolition de l’esclavage.

The black characters on the painting acts like they are thankful. This painting shows the official vision of the abolition of slavery. It’s a gift when it’s not. It’s abolishing something that is inhuman and should not exist.

When preparing the exhibition, researches were made to find out the identity of the black models featured on the paintings. Sometimes, the titles of the paintings were changed because their original title is offensive now. The captions keep the history of the titles until the one chosen for the exhibition. If possible, it now relates to the models’ names. See this this painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. It was first intitled Portrait d’une négresse, then Portrait d’une femme noire and now it is Portrait de Madeleine.

The changes in the title feels right as long as we keep their historical thread. We see how society changed and where we come from. Just changing the name would erase the truth. When it was painted, her identity to the white world was not Madeleine. Her name didn’t matter. She was “just a nigger.” As Romain Gary pointed it out, racism is when people don’t matter. It is symbolic and important to give this woman her rightful name, her identity and her position as an equal human being in our eyes.

The 19th century after 1848.

Literature has its place in the exhibition as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover was black and Manet painted her.

She was his muse and a recurring presence in The Flowers of Evil. She’s the black sun in his poetry.

I noted down several literary works featuring black characters: La négresse et le Pacha by Théophile Gautier, Le capitaine Pamphile by Alexandre Dumas, Toussaint Louverture, poème dramatique by Lamartine, Bug Jargel by Victor Hugo, Ourika by Claire de Duras. In 1921, René Maran was the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt with his book Batouala. Véritable roman nègre. I’m tempted to read the Dumas because I like him as a writer and he was proud of his black heritage, despite the jibes and he wrote is Capitaine Pamphile as a statement.

And there was a display table about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that was successful in France when it was published.

The 19th century is also the century of French colonization of parts of Africa. Cordier made gorgeous bronzes to celebrate the beauty of African people

Including one entitles Aimez-vous les uns les autres. (Love one another)

And at the same time, there was a horrible film taken at the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1897. It was a human zoo representing an African village with actual Africans displayed in this fake village.

The early 20th century.

WWI brought more black people in France. The Senegalese tirailleurs, soldiers from African colonies were enrolled in the French army. The Harlem Hellighters, an African-American infantry regiment of the US Army were detached to the French army and wore French helmets during WWI.

It bothered me that the Senegalese tirailleurs and the Harlem Hellfighters were put together on the same wall. It’s not the same. The Senegalese tirailleurs are colonial troops who were sent to fight for a country that wasn’t theirs. They didn’t ask to be colonized and live under French rule. They got into this war because of the colonization.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought in France because the USA entered WWI. They were serving their country. To put them on the same wall as the Senegalese tirailleurs is like saying that, like them, they were fighting for a cause that wasn’t theirs. It denies the fact that these African-American troops had rightful American citizenship.

The arrival of 200 000 African-American soldiers in 1917-1918 for WWI brought jazz to France and it was the beginning of an African-American community in Paris. The exhibition branched out to show black artists in circus, in theatre or on shows like Josephine Baker. It reminded me of another exhibition The Color Line, about segregation and African-American artists.

It also focused on the concept of négritude by Aimé Césaire, it met the Surrealists’ political causes and was concomitant to the Harlem Renaissance movement. I loved to hear about Matisse and how his visit to Harlem influenced his painting.

The exhibition ends with a new reading of Olympia by Edouard Manet, first by Matisse:

and then by Larry Rivers in I Like Olympia In Black Face.

If you’re traveling to Paris soon, the exhibition lasts until July 21st and it’s worth the visit.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t live the Musée d’Orsay with two new books bought at the bookstore of the exhibition. Slavery Told to my Daughter by Christian Taubira and Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, Jimmy being James Baldwin.

 

Categories: Personal Posts Tags:
  1. May 26, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    Oh, this is such a fascinating post, Emma. I shamefully never associate France with people of colour, and I had *no idea* Dumas had black heritage!

    Like

    • May 26, 2019 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks.
      Dumas’s father was from the colonies, that’s why.

      Like

  2. May 26, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    Another C19th story featuring a character of colour is Indiana by George Sand. Indians’s maid Noun is from the Caribbean if I remember rightly…

    Like

  3. May 26, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Have you seen Black Venus? It was an interesting film although understandably ugly at points.

    Like

    • May 26, 2019 at 4:43 pm

      I’ve heard of Black Venus but I haven’t seen it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 26, 2019 at 7:27 pm

    Interesting choices of commentators for the audio guide. Usually these people are erudite scholars whose comments get a bit overwhelming

    Like

    • May 31, 2019 at 8:24 pm

      I thought it was interesting and their comments were engaging. They were on top of the usual academic comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. May 26, 2019 at 10:15 pm

    Coincidentally I’m just reading the March 2019 number of L’Histoire which is exactly about this topic, including an article on the exhibition. Between that and your detailed description, I almost feel as if I’ve been there myself. There’s also a shortish article about Alexandre Dumas, the original one, and his part in the Napoleonic wars. Quite interesting.

    Like

    • May 27, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      I found this other title in L’Histoire for your literature list: Banjo, by Claude McKay. “Ecrivain du mouvement Harlem Renaissance, a dépeint dans son roman Banjo le Marseille interlope et cosmopolite des années 1920”.

      Like

      • May 29, 2019 at 9:16 am

        Thanks
        This sounds intriguing, don’t you think?

        Like

    • May 31, 2019 at 8:26 pm

      It’s a fascinating exhibitions, the ones at the Musée d’Orsay usually are. They manage to be mainstream and erudite at the same time.

      Like

  6. May 26, 2019 at 11:09 pm

    It’s a good film but it gets to the point that you don’t want to watch it anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 29, 2019 at 9:15 am

      Not sure it’s my kind of thing.

      Like

  7. May 28, 2019 at 9:07 am

    That’s a terrific review of an important exhibition. I was planning to skip through this post but you really drew me in. And Dumas Black! That’s something my father never told me (he was a fan). Finally, that ‘live’ could be a neologism for ‘leave with un livre’.

    Like

    • May 29, 2019 at 9:19 am

      Thanks Bill.
      Yes Dumas was métis, which was something in his time.
      According to the exhibition, even his son was mocked for it.

      Like

  1. No trackbacks yet.

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: