The black model, from Géricault to Matisse


In 1791, shortly after the French Revolution, a first decree to abolish slavery was proclaimed, a historical breaking point that marked the emergence of the “black model” in Western art, including portraits of emancipated black individuals such as Thomas Alexandre Dumas painted by Louis Gauffier or Madeleine by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. While these works gradually occupy an important place in the artistic space created by the political and social revolution of the time, they also reflect the ambiguities of their time. Driven by three key moments – 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-garde of the 20th century – this exhibition offers a new perspective on a subject that has been neglected for too long: the important contribution of black people and figures to the history of art. The objective is therefore to give back to all these “black models”, great forgotten in the narrative of modernity; a name, a history, a visibility.

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One of the first artists to show his involvement in this fraternal struggle was Géricault, with his famous painting, Le Radeau de la Méduse, which relates the fateful colonial expedition of the frigate La Méduse in the summer of 1816, off the coast of Mauritania. Indeed, if the first sketch of the painting strikes by the absence of any black person, the final composition has three: by multiplying the black figures in his painting, Géricault thus summarizes his fight for abolitionism. We know that he used the famous Joseph model for his paintings, originally from Haiti, also represented by Théodore Chassériau. Known by his only first name, Joseph was one of the most famous artist models of the 19th century, spotted by Chassériau in an acrobat troupe and became the official model of the École des Beaux-Arts.

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In the fight against slavery, art also becomes a means of denouncing what victims of an inhuman system endure. Marcel Verdier, a student of Ingres, was refused his Châtiment des quatre piquets at the 1843 Salon. The painting lifts the veil on colonial reality, breaking taboos; a visual shock that makes it possible to raise public awareness and make them feel guilty by confronting them with their own indifference or passivity. Thus, the spectacle of humanity under irons, martyred and suffering an atrocious fate, was widely exploited in the 1840s. It was not until the abolition of slavery in the colonies in 1848 that this symbolic measure was finally celebrated with paintings in which blacks and whites were gathered, where the jubilation of the liberated, the broken chains and fraternal unity could finally be expressed, as Nicolas Gosse’s painting, L’esclave affranchi.

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Later, in the 19th century, artists wanted to detach themselves from the stereotypes associated with black characters and represent them in the manner of intimate and individualized portraits: it was in this way that Baudelaire chose to represent Jeanne Duval, who had Haitian origins and who would share her life from 1842 onwards, marking her bewitching presence with Les Fleurs du Mal and the poet’s designs. Several of Baudelaire’s works evoke and represent her; the one he calls “the feline”, a beauty that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes disturbing… But painting and literature are not the only arts in which we find more and more black personalities: the performing arts scene includes many artists from the United States or the Caribbean. Among them we can mention the Havana musician Maria Martinez, the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, the virtuoso pianist Blind Tom, the aerial acrobat Miss La La La, represented by Degas, as well as the clown Rafael known as Chocolat, star of the Moulin Rouge with his white partner Foottit.

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After the 1960s, jazz and the musical and artistic culture born in the Harlem district of the United States came into being. 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 like Matisse himself will be fascinated by New York, its skyscrapers, its light and its “musicals”. The Renaissance Harlem and pop and today destroy taboos and stereotypes such as the reinterpretation of Manet’s famous Olympia, 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 references being then reversed.

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