Le Modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse
“Le Modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse” is an “ambitious interdisciplinary survey of the black model—male and female—in French painting, sculpture, and photography from neoclassicism to Matisse, addressing the place of black and mixed-race artists, writers, musicians, and performers in French culture over more than 150 years.” Colin Bailey writes. “Concentrating primarily on the long nineteenth century and Matisse, ‘Le Modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse’ assembled some 330 items, in many media, with concluding sections devoted to the influence of African-American culture in Paris after World War I, the Négritude movement, the Surrealists and anti-colonialism, and modern and contemporary responses to Manet’s Olympia.
This astonishing and moving presentation—no less than its accompanying catalog, with contributions from prominent writers on art, history, and race—was in many ways a realization of a project undertaken more than half a century ago by the Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil: the creation of an archive of the image of the black in Western art from the medieval period onward, with a series of accompanying publications intended for both specialists and the general public. Today, this archive of around 30,000 images is housed at the Warburg Institute in London and Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. Under the joint editorship of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the art historian David Bindman, the original five volumes in the series The Image of the Black in Western Art, published between 1976 and 1985, have been revised, updated, and reprinted. Eleven books have appeared since 2010, most recently The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art, published in 2017.
Upon entering the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition—which is now at Guadeloupe’s Mémorial ACTe, a museum dedicated to the history of the slave trade—the visitor was confronted by the decree abolishing slavery in the French colonies, proclaimed by the National Convention on February 4, 1794. It was revoked by Napoleon in May 1802, and only in April 1848 did the Second Republic emancipate enslaved people throughout the French colonies. Hanging by itself on a wall nearby was Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s celebrated neoclassical portrait of a black servant, exhibited at the Salon of 1800 as Portrait d’une négresse, which was described by Hugh Honour as ‘perhaps the most beautiful portrait of a black woman ever painted.’ The sitter’s identity as Madeleine, one of two domestics who accompanied Benoist’s sister and brother-in-law on their return from Guadeloupe to France in 1798, was discovered only in 2018. Benoist—who had studied with Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Jacques-Louis David—draped her sitter in the colors of the new republic, replacing the young woman’s Antillean headdress with linen of the purest white. This intimate and sensitive portrayal of a black servant was nonetheless the work of an artist of royalist sympathies whose family’s wealth and position were dependent on the slave-owning colonial economy.”
For more information, please visit memorial-acte.fr.
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