Le modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse

The black model, from Géricault to Matisse                                  

In 1791, shortly after the French Revolution, was proclaimed a first decree of abolition of slavery, a point of historical rupture that marks the emergence of the “black model” in Western art, among which portraits of individuals emancipated blacks like Thomas Alexandre Dumas painted by Louis Gauffier or Madeleineby Marie-Guillemine Benoist. If these works gradually occupy an important place in the artistic space created by the political and social revolution of the time, they also bear witness to ambiguities peculiar to their time. Worn by three highlights – the time of the abolition of slavery (1794-1848), the time of the New Painting (Manet, Bazille, Degas, Cézanne) and the time of the first avant-gardes of the twentieth century – this exhibition offers a new look at a subject that has been neglected for too long: the important contribution of black people and personalities to the history of the arts. The goal is to give back to all these “black models”, forgotten in the story of modernity; a name, a story, a visibility.

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One of the first artists to express his involvement in this fraternal struggle is Géricault, with his famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa , which recounts the dismal colonial expedition of the frigate La Médusein the summer of 1816, off the coast of Mauritania. Indeed, if the first sketch of the painting strikes by the absence of any Black, the final composition has three: by multiplying the black figures in his table, Géricault summarizes his fight for abolitionism. We know that he used his paintings, the famous model Joseph, originally from Haiti, also represented by Theodore Chasseriau. Known by his first name, Joseph was one of the most famous artist models of the nineteenth century, spotted by Chasseriau in a troupe of acrobats and became official model of the School of Fine Arts.

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In the fight against slavery, art also becomes a means of denouncing what the victims of an inhuman system endure. Marcel Verdier, student of Ingres, to be refused his Punishment of the four stakesat the Salon of 1843. The painting lifts the veil on the colonial reality, breaking taboos; a visual shock that raises public awareness and makes them feel guilty by confronting them with their own indifference or passivity. Thus, the spectacle of a humanity under the irons, martyred and suffering a terrible spell, was widely exploited in the 1840s. It was not until the abolition of slavery in the colonies in 1848 to finally celebrate this symbolic measure by black and white paintings are gathered, where the jubilant freedmen, broken chains and fraternal unity can finally express themselves, like the painting of Nicolas Gosse, the freed slave .

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Later, in the nineteenth century, artists want to detach themselves from stereotypes associated with black characters and represent them in the manner of intimate portraits and individualized: this is how Baudelaire chose to represent Jeanne Duval, Haitian origins and who will share his life from 1842, marking his haunting presence The Flowers of Eviland the poet’s designs. Several works by Baudelaire evoke and represent it; the one he calls “the feline”, a beauty sometimes kind, sometimes disturbing … But painting and literature are not the only arts in which we find more and more black personalities: the scene of the show has many original artists from the United States or the Caribbean. Among them we can mention the Havana musician Maria Martinez, the Shakespearian actor Ira Aldridge, the virtuoso pianist Blind Tom, the aerial acrobat Miss La La, represented by Degas, as well as the clown Rafael known as Chocolat, star of the Moulin Red with his white friend Foottit.

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After the 1960s, it was the advent of jazz and musical and artistic culture born in the Harlem district of the United States. Many intellectuals like Du Bois, Alain Locke, musicians like Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday … defend a modern and urban black culture that fascinates French artists as Matisse himself will be fascinated by New York, its skyscrapers, its light and his “musicals”. The Harlem Renaissance and pop and today destroy taboos and stereotypes like the reinterpretation of the famous Olympia Manet, where it is no longer a white woman and a black servant but a black woman and a white servant who compose the work, all the referents being then reversed.

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