In Plain Sight

Le Modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse

an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, March 26–July 21, 2019; and the Mémorial ACTe, Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, September 13–December 29, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Cécile Debray, Stéphane Guégan, Denise Murrell, Isolde Pludermacher, and others
Paris: Musée d’Orsay/ Flammarion, 381 pp., €45.00
Édouard Manet's Olympia, 1863
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Édouard Manet: Olympia, 1863

In the spring of 1985 The New York Review published Françoise Cachin’s hostile review of T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Cachin, the founding director of the Musée d’Orsay, who in 1983 had been responsible for the exhibition at the Grand Palais and the Metropolitan Museum of Art commemorating the centenary of Manet’s death, took exception to Clark’s central chapter on Manet’s Olympia (1863), which he had described as “the founding monument of modern art.”1 She belittled his discussion of the painting’s engagement with sexuality and class in Second Empire Paris and caricatured his interpretation of Manet’s courtesan by claiming that he thought Olympia was a sexual proletarian lacking a phallus.2 In his acid rebuttal, Clark dismissed Cachin—a granddaughter of the neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac—as the standard-bearer of the bourgeoisie, a “cultural apparatchik” working for “a State machine…which never stops vomiting retrospectives,” and someone who dispensed “picturesque summaries picked up on the Paris cocktail circuit.”3

By the time a second edition of The Painting of Modern Life appeared in 1999, art-historical discourse was beginning to shift from a preoccupation with class and sex to a focus on race. In his introduction to the new edition, Clark acknowledged a primary omission in his interpretation of Manet’s painting, quoting an unnamed friend who told him, “For God’s sake! You’ve written about the white woman on the bed for fifty pages and more, and hardly mentioned the black woman alongside her!”4 In a pioneering and polemical essay, “A Tale of Three Women: Seeing in the Dark, Seeing Double, at Least, with Manet,” published the same year, the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock gave the most comprehensive account to date of the black servant attending the courtesan in the painting. She analyzed Olympia as disrupting an Orientalist tradition rooted in slavery and colonialism, which exoticized primarily female African and North African subjects, and represented them as compliant and submissive. Pollock also attempted to unearth more about the black model, Laure, whose identity had been known since 1931, when Manet’s biographer, Adolphe Tabarant, first discovered her name and address in a small notebook that the artist had used in 1860–1862.5

This notebook was acquired in 1974 by the Pierpont Morgan Library (as it was then known), along with over five hundred letters and documents from Tabarant’s archive relating to Manet and the Impressionists. From it we learn that Manet met the two models who would pose for Olympia at around the same time in 1861. “Laure, très belle négresse,” lived at 11, rue Vintimille, in Paris’s 9th arrondissement.6 Recent research shows that her modest apartment was part of an industrial complex of four shops and forty-eight small dwellings, whose residents included a wine merchant, dressmakers, and a…

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