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The Dark Legacy of the Enlightenment

The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part 1, Slaves and Liberators

by Hugh Honour
Harvard University Press, 379 pp., $50.00

The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part 2, Black Models and White Myths

by Hugh Honour
Harvard University Press, 306 pp., $50.00

The Enlightenment, bearing the name it did, was ill-equipped to deal with dark-hued human beings. Seeking to make all things perspicuous to reason, that historical movement shied from the opaque. Thomas Jefferson, who admired translucent things (like his own house), criticized the black cheek for its lack of blushes. This inability to express shame indicated to him that there was none to be expressed. Only a bungling-workman God would have prisoned up a feeling inside people who could not convey that feeling visually. Thus a black’s “ardour after his female” lacks “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation”—the subtler forms of emotion that can be registered on paler skin, a kind of superior page for the writing of the human story.

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV)

Hugh Honour does not cite Jefferson’s discussion of blacks, perhaps since it is too well known, in his two-volume study of the black image from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century; but Jefferson’s text is a perfect illustration of his original and convincing thesis—that there is an innate conservativism to visual representation as compared with verbal and theoretical forms of communication. Jefferson recognized an equality between blacks and whites in the faculty that his own theory put at the apex of human activity, the moral sense. But an aesthetic revulsion prevented him from seeing the practical implications of that theory. How, for instance, could blacks have a fully developed moral sense without the emotions connected with shame and sentiment? Jefferson did not pursue the matter, since he saw (or thought he did) an absence of shame on the stubbornly unblushing cheek. Visual prejudice short-circuited his thinking—a pattern Honour finds over and over in the artists he considers.

Theoretical views can detach themselves from concrete perception in ways that the plastic arts cannot. It is commonplace to say that modernist art drastically changed our view of the world, but only in a minor way when we compare it with the influence of modern physics. Einstein was more radical than Picasso. A cubist table is still, so long as it remains in any visual way a table, a conservative construct compared to the understanding of its atomic and subatomic structure. In an analogous way, Wordsworth could convey the stature of Toussaint L’Ouverture in a sonnet that never mentions his appearance but uses purely literary expressions of the heroic ideal. No visual artist came up with a parallel artifact, since too many iconic associations undercut the public representation of blacks as heroic. For one thing, dominating male forms carried, in the case of blacks, suggestions of sexual aggression that would not have been felt in the depiction of great white leaders. Jefferson’s text, you notice, tends by a fatal gravitation to the black’s “ardour after his female”—and, more telling, to his ardor after white females (by a seductively symmetrical law that makes the male orangutan prefer the black female, in a kind of chain reaction of male aspiration up the ladder of being—the visual completion of which hierarchy would make white males aspire to female angels).

Honour is able to find many depictions of heroic male physiques of blacks—e.g., those modeled from a man named Wilson, who was a favorite of English artists around 1810; but usually these anatomic studies lead to paintings expressive of brute power, paintings in which black males subdue lions or giant serpents. The highest exercise of power available in this line is to show a black as the devil being cast from the mount of temptation by Jesus. One of the finest male figures painted in this period was done as a study for just such a picture, by one of Ingres’s students, Théodore Chassériau. As a visual hero, the black who aspired up from bestiality was reaching toward the diabolic.

Honour shows, in one powerful section of his study, how frequent has been the use of blacks in lubricious fantasies about harems and other exotic arenas of release from sexual inhibitions. The white imagination, straying into forbidden areas, found them heavily populated with compliant black females or mesmeric black studs. Even so “progressive” and anti-romantic a picture as Manet’s Olympia (1863) has one startlingly retrograde element in it, the black attendant, who is just as generalized as the Olympia is particularized. Here is the traditional harem attendant intruding into the supposedly realistic depiction of Paris prostitution in the 1860s. The accumulation of visual associations that associated a black sensualist and his white harem slave made it almost impossible, for many years, to show Othello embracing Desdemona without stirring irrational fantasies in the white audience that cheapened and degraded what Shakespeare could do in words, or his actors could do in gesture. (There were inhibitions on close embracing in Shakespeare’s theater, but they arose from the fact that boys were playing the women, not from the color of Othello’s skin in the play.)

One might think, from Honour’s argument about the multiple, and often biased, cultural associations of “high art” that “scientific” sketches of measured specimens, or comparative studies of graphable physical differences, would escape the conservatism of the visual. But, with a fine sense of paradox, Honour shows that such drawings, purporting to be merely reportorial, could be the most damaging representations of all. For one thing, it was very hard to get truly objective drawings, even with the greatest effort. The draughtsman unconsciously exaggerated features that were unusual in his experience. This can be seen from the different representations of the so-called Hottentot Venus brought to London and then to Paris from South Africa to become the object of scientific study. The unconscious intrusion of sexual concerns into this project led to the preservation of the woman’s genitals in the Académie Royale de Médecine, whence they were transferred to the Musée de l’Homme and made a validation of the extraordinary libido ascribed to blacks.

In much the same way, comparative drawings of human physiognomy seemed to objectify assumptions that were as ungrounded as Jefferson’s speculation on the orangutan. The irony of this tremendously harmful exercise is borne in on us if we remember that the least intelligent type depicted by the comparative artists was the prominently prognathic profile combined with a sharply slanting forehead—just the facial type Houdon has preserved in his busts of Jefferson and Voltaire! All such drawings tended to mask as well as to validate the preconceptions of their creators and interpreters. “The more scientifically accurate they are, the more they are open to interpretations determined by their subjects and the less they nowadays seem to support the notions they were intended to illustrate.”

Drawing on the support and the resources of the Menil Foundation in Houston, which is sponsoring the series of studies on “the image of the black in Western art” in which the two volumes under review appear,1 Honour has collected an immense store of images and sorted them out in a lucid way, devoting one volume to a historical survey of the principal movements in the period under study (one that takes us from a slave era through abolition to attempts at integration), and turning in the second volume to important themes or genres that run throughout the period. The range of scholarship, the broad attention to the cultural setting within which each artifact is placed, could be equaled by few if any living art historians. He is qualified for this extraordinary labor of learning not only by his study of classical art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but by his work in organizing and cataloging the ethnographic material that went into his 1976 exhibition, The European Vision of America. The story he tells is usually one of unintended consequences falling on their authors’ heads, by a process of ironies and reversals that threatens to entrammel even him in their trickiest ambiguities.

Cultures share ways of seeing things that are both subtler and less controllable than verbal or abstract modes of discourse. This does not, necessarily, have anything to do with racist intent in the individual artist. In fact, one strain of deep pathos running through Honour’s book relates to the attempts, repeatedly made and endlessly baffled, to present blacks freed from the social stigmata attached to their images in previous artistic renditions. Philanthropic pictures are almost inescapably condescending, as when Lincoln is presented as the “father” of freed slaves, who kneel to him as if deferring to a higher form of being. European abolitionists, alert to the degrading associations of earlier depictions of blacks, tried to exclude individuals from their paintings, creating general symbols of a condition. One of the most powerful anti-slavery works is Turner’s Slave Ship in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; but the only glimpse the artist gives us of actual slaves is a hand or two and one manacled leg sticking out of the water.

Such an art of indirection has, over a long term, and in the hands of lesser painters, a dehumanizing effect. American philanthropists, by contrast, dwelled on the particulars of domestic scenes, aiming at pathos, but often reducing their figures to the unintended comedy of genre studies—as in Frank Buchser’s Song of Mary Blane (1870), where immaculately “presentable” blacks sing of their sorrows against an ironic backdrop of the hill topped by Jefferson’s house. The picture, which tries to dispel the image of dirty and disreputable African-Americans, slips into other stereotypes. The naked baby, for instance, is clean and healthy, but it chews at a watermelon rind. The well-dressed adolescent girl has an exposed breast. The males are more unkempt and less attentive than the females. Today the models seem to be saying to us, “Do us no more favors of this kind,” though contemporaries thought the painting “advanced” in its conception of black life and culture.

Honour is marvelously quick to discern such countermessages in the works of art he studies, so quick that he may overstate them at times—as in his treatment of the famous abolitionist emblem, “Am I Not a Man and Brother,” associated with the Quakers in England and America. Honour argues that the kneeling posture of the slave, who is “supplicating” for freedom in the instruction for drawing the emblem, is degrading, as is the language used to describe the image (e.g., Erasmus Darwin’s verse on “Britain’s slaves imploring to be free”). Honour is certainly right in pointing to a long tradition of blacks kneeling to their conquerors or benefactors. But kneeling was not always ignoble, as one can see in the religious and courtly paintings of Benjamin West, where even royalty kneels. In West’s The Damsel and Orlando of 1793 (Toledo Museum of Art), the damsel kneels to show Orlando his lost bracelet. Nor was the language of supplicating or imploring confined to the lower orders in the eighteenth century, a period that was deeply deferential throughout all social strata. We can see this in its dedicatory letters and cultivation of patrons. Admittedly, the letters of the black freedman Ignatius Sancho make modern readers cringe at the servility with which he flatters his benefactors; but most of us would now wince to use the terms of dedication formed in the most respectable authors of the time. The protocol in such matters was so fixed that Samuel Johnson shocked and titillated people with his defiance of it in his letter to Lord Chesterfield.

Deferential forms were especially observed when asking for redress of grievances, as we can see from the addresses of the American colonies to George III before the break with him became inevitable. As recently as one year before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress was content to “entreat your Majesty’s gracious attention to this our humble petition,” arguing as “dutiful subjects…attached to your Majesty’s person, family and government,” beseeching him for “gracious” interposition, and so forth (Petition of May 25, 1775). The slave in the emblem lifts his arms to display the chains on them. In the same way, colonial pamphleteers argued that Parliament had reduced them to a state of chains and slavery. To make blacks an exception to that contemporary language for righting wrongs would not only have hurt their cause, it would have looked like a gratuitous affront to the civilized world the blacks were trying to enter.

In the case of the Quaker emblem, the use of a visual image was in itself a bold departure from past inhibitions on the use of “graven images,” as Honour himself admits; and the plea to universal brotherhood, antedating by several years the French Revolution’s proclamation of an all-embracing fraternité, can hardly be considered servile, given its historical context. Honour seems altogether too harsh when he concludes: “Thus it was the abolitionist emblem, that most well-intentioned and commendatory of all black images, which came to crystallize and enshrine the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority.”

Perhaps from overexposure to their smugness through the ages, Honour seems to have developed a settled grudge against reformers. He loses no opportunity to point out that well-off abolitionists often had nothing to lose, economically, from their support of the cause. This leads him sometimes to overstate their condition of ease. Thus he can write: “The predominantly Quaker state of Pennsylvania, birthplace of the active campaign for the abolition of slavery, had in 1780 passed a law for the gradual emancipation of slaves.” But the Quakers had lost their predominant influence in the state before the Revolution, during which (and under the state’s first constitution) they were discriminated against. Certainly the activities of Anthony Benezet in Philadelphia often involved him in situations of risk. Yet such figures are rarely glimpsed among the self-satisfied abolitionists and philanthropists in Honour’s text. At times, here, it seems that opponents of slavery cannot win, no matter how hard they try. If they want to arouse indignation by portraying the sufferings of slaves, Honour accuses them of perpetuating the images of degradation. If they try to show the undamaged humanity of some slaves, they are glossing over the horrors blacks have suffered. He is also critical of the reformers for trying to evangelize slaves, a process he considers only as an imposition of foreign values on them, and not (as men like Benezet clearly thought) as the sharing of the most precious treasure placed in human trust.

The basic sin of the reformers, as Honour presents them, is to treat blacks as a cause, as a type of oppression. The artists Honour praises treat blacks as individuals, human beings not reducible to their status or social type. Honour does find worthy treatments of individual blacks as painted by (among others) Joshua Reynolds, John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins. And he rightly draws special attention to the portraits put on the dust jackets of his two volumes—Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800, the Louvre), where sensuality and intelligence are combined, and Anne-Louis Girodet’s Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley (1797, Versailles), which shows a delegate to the French National Convention from Saint Domingue, a poised and elegant man leaning on a pillar in the pose of his fellow lawmakers. But some of these portraits of “individuals” reflect social caste in ways that are not limited to slavery. Thus Delacroix’s Portrait of Aspasie, the Mulatto Woman (1824), which Honour praises for its suggestion of “loneliness and frustrated passions,” also presents the woman as sexually available (the model was probably a prostitute), in a beckoning pose that links her with Delacroix’s use of voluptuous black women in his fantasies of Oriental harems. Few feminists would consider this an advance on abolitionist thinking. In the same way, Géricault’s portraits of a black acrobat and a Turkish servant have the same touch of exoticism that led Géricault to place a strong black figure at the apex of his human pyramid in The Raft of the Medusa (1819).

This latter painting is a crucial one for Honour. If the Quaker emblem is the most servile depiction of blacks, Géricault’s raft is the finest one, precisely because it escapes generalizations about slavery and presents a black, in the most basic of human plights, aspiring upward with hope. The work does not smack of that abolitionism Honour has come to resent: “In the whole history of Western art there is no other image that so effectively claims the right of blacks to liberty and equality, alluding to slavery but freeing them from the stigma of inferiority implicit in straightforward abolitionist iconography.”

But Honour is selective in the evidence he uses to reach this interpretation of the painting. He describes the scandalous event on which it is based—the desertion of survivors from the wreck of a French naval vessel on its way to Senegal—and emphasizes some stages of its composition; but he entirely leaves out one of the most notorious facts about the ordeal suffered on that raft, the resort of its survivors to cannibalism. This part of the story so intrigued Géricault that at one stage he meant to depict the act of omophagia, a rare artistic subject.2 Elements of that earlier design are retained in the finished picture, not only in the human torso half devoured but in the ghastly foreground group of a father staring out over his son at the painting’s viewers (while those still struggling turn their backs to us as they strain toward a rescue vessel). This foreground group is based on the image of Dante’s Ugolino, thought to have devoured his own children, as painted by Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fuseli. By omitting all reference to these parts of the picture, Honour is able to offer it as a symbol of human hope and survival, not of the tragic reduction of human nature to a last extreme of violation.

Given the historical context of the painting, the muscular, healthy, well-preserved black who reaches the top of the struggling heap achieves a grisly eminence. Honour reproduces the sketch of the black’s rounded musculature without conveying any sense of the bitter inappropriateness of such animal health in the literal hell of the raft. Lorenz E.A. Eitner, in the finest discussion of the painting I know of, treats it as closer to a nihilist vision than to the hopeful work Honour makes of it.3 As Eitner notes, in a passage Honour refers to without fully registering its impact, Géricault models his work on the lower portions of Jean Gros’s Napoleonic “miracle” canvases, showing the damned without Napoleon’s epiphanic effect on them. Géricault gives us a hell without release. If the well-muscled black reigns there, it is by a transvaluation of all normal ruling values. The only redeeming quality left to the people on board the raft is that of “Ugolino,” who at least knows what has been done, and that it cannot be undone.

If Honour sometimes errs, it is on the side of gallantry, of trying to redeem some of the many wrongs inflicted on blacks by the artistic legacy of the past. One of the few ironies he misses is that this puts him on the side of the reformers he has come to distrust, sharing their good intentions if not their condescension. None of this invalidates his larger argument, on the conservatism latent in the multiple signal-systems of art, which exert endless subtle points of pressure on blacks trying to emerge from the “darkeness” assigned them by “enlightenment” itself. The relevance of Honour’s scholarly achievement can be seen from the problems of iconography encountered in Jesse Jackson’s campaign ads of 1988. Jackson took a tough-on-drugs attitude that filmmaker Spike Lee tried to capture in a gritty traveling-camera shot of Jackson as he walked the mean streets terrorized by crime. The ad was heavily criticized for making Jackson look too menacing, stirring atavistic fears of any black male who exudes a sense of confidence and control. The conservatism of images does not end at the point where Honour must bring to an end his rewarding study.

  1. 1

    The earlier volumes are reviewed by David Brion Davis, The New York Review (November 5, 1981).

  2. 2

    The omophagous sketch can be viewed on page 168 of Lorenz Eitner, Géricault: His Life and Work (Orbis, 1983).

  3. 3

    Eitner, Géricault: His Life and Work, pp. 158–201.

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