Elevating the History
of Black Models
in Modernism

Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Woman with peonies, 1870. Originally titled Negress with peonies

© Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, NGA Images
Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Woman with peonies, 1870. Originally titled Negress with peonies
The ground-breaking exhibition not only expands art history, drawing attention to the engagement of black models in modernism, it also questions the role of museums and asks how these spaces can be more inclusive.

The ground-breaking exhibition not only expands art history, drawing attention to the engagement of black models in modernism, it also questions the role of museums and asks how these spaces can be more inclusive.

© Musée d’Orsay

 

“The politics of this are evident in the poster for the exhibition and the cover of the catalogue and also in the opening invitations.”

Anne Higonnet

In organizing Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, which ran October 24, 2018 to February 10, 2019 at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York, curator Denise Murrell aimed to shift visitor perceptions of black figures in the presented artworks, down to their label text. Many of the titles referred to subjects solely by their race, and Murrell wanted to find their names.

"We were talking about some of the titles of the works in the Wallach, and Denise said she really wished she could change the titles, but we couldn't because the lenders have a legal right to say what the label is going to be like," said Anne Higonnet, professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Barnard College and Columbia University, who worked with Murrell on her research at Columbia. When the exhibition expanded into a larger show at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the museum’s director Laurence des Cars supported the idea, and with that backing several works were temporarily retitled for Le Modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse, on view through July 14.

“The politics of this are evident in the poster for the exhibition and the cover of the catalogue and also in the opening invitations,” Higonnet said. “The Orsay elected to choose all works that they were changing the titles of, and they included the title change and the old title to point out that it used to be different."

For instance, an 1800 painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist depicts a black woman wearing a white turban, with her dress, its tri-colors resembling the French flag, open to expose one breast. Completed just after slavery was abolished following the French Revolution — and before it was reinstated by Napoleon — the painting was initially titled “Portrait of a Negress,” then renamed “Portrait of a Black Woman” at the Louvre. At the Orsay, it is “Portrait of Madeleine,” naming the emancipated slave from Guadeloupe who posed for the image. Her name was always there in archival material, but the research forLe Modèle noir unearthed her identity for the public.

This investigation into the 19th-century black community of Paris that forms the exhibition’s foundation is based on Murrell’s doctoral dissertation. The Orsay exhibition culminates with what is arguably the museum’s most famous work, and the one which was the catalyst for Murrell’s scholarship: “Olympia.” When it debuted, the 1863 painting by Édouard Manet shocked Paris with its depiction of a white prostitute, wearing just a choker, a bracelet, and a flower in her hair, regarding the viewer with a steady gaze. “Olympia” is considered a watershed moment for modernism, with its bold rejection of 19th-century romanticism in its representation of a Parisian world devoid of idealization. To the right of the nude figure is a black woman dressed in modern clothing offering her a bouquet, whose portrayal fills about a third of the canvas. Murrell wanted to know her story, and why she had been forgotten in art history when Manet gave her such prominence and depicted her features with such care and without exoticization. She soon found out her name: Laure.

“This institutional silence, or blindness, can be seen to render depictions of blacks, such as Manet’s images of Laure, as unimportant, unworthy of attention; seeing is both the physical act of looking and the cognitive processes that construct attention,” writes Murrell in the Posing Modernity catalogue, co-published by Yale University Press with the Wallach Art Gallery. “The figure, therefore, in the absence of narratives that animate viewer curiosity and interest, becomes invisible even while in plain view.”

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Lady with white dress (woman in white), 1946
© Photo: Rich Sanders, Des Moines, IA. © Succession H. Matisse

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Lady with white dress (woman in white), 1946

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), Aïcha, 1922
© SHK / Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk. Photo: Elke Walford

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), Aïcha, 1922

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), The Snake Charmer, 1907
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), The Snake Charmer, 1907

Jules Cheret (1836-1932), Delmonico, the black tamer. Oller Fantasies, Music Hall, 1876
© Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Jules Cheret (1836-1932), Delmonico, the Black Tamer. Oller Fantasies, Music Hall, 1876

Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Woman with peonies, 1870. Originally titled Negress with peonies
© Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, NGA Images

Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Woman with peonies, 1870. Originally titled Negress with peonies.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia, 1863
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia, 1863

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Study after the model Scipion, 1866-1868
© João Musa

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Study after the model Scipion, 1866-1868

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Study after a female model for "For sale, slaves in Cairo", circa 1872
© Galerie Jean-François Heim - Bâle

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Study after a female model for "For sale, slaves in Cairo", circa 1872

Félix Nadar (1820-1910), Maria the Antillean, between 1856 and 1859
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Félix Nadar (1820-1910), Maria the Antillean, between 1856 and 1859

Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1821-1867), Portrait of Jeanne Duval, 1865
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1821-1867), Portrait of Jeanne Duval, 1865

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Jeanne Duval, 1862
© Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, 2018, photo by Csanád Szesztay

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Jeanne Duval, 1862

Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Portrait of Alexandre Dumas in Russian costume, 1859
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / image RMN-GP

Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Portrait of Alexandre Dumas in Russian costume, 1859

Charles Cordier (1827-1905), French Sudanese man, 1857
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Charles Cordier (1827-1905), French Sudanese Man, 1857

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), Why be born a slave?, after 1875
© Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Reims

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), Why be born a slave?, after 1875

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), Young Black with Sword, 1848-1849
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), Young Black with Sword, 1848-1849

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Study of man, after the model Joseph, 1818-1819
Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Study of man, after the model Joseph, 1818-1819

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Back study (after the model Joseph) for "The Raft of the Medusa", circa 1818-1819
© RMN-Grand Palais / Philipp Bernard

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), Back study (after the model Joseph) for "The Raft of the Medusa", circa 1818-1819

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Study after the model Aspasie, circa 1824-1826
© Fabre Museum of Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole / photography Frédéric Jaulmes

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Study after the model Aspasie, circa 1824-1826

Marie Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), Portrait of Madeleine, 1800. Also called Portrait of a black woman, presented at the Salon of 1800 under the title Portrait of a Negress
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot

Marie Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), Portrait of Madeleine, 1800. Also called Portrait of a black woman, presented at the Salon of 1800 under the title Portrait of a Negress.

The exhibition not only augments our understanding of art history, drawing attention to the engagement of black models in modernism, it also questions the role of museums in these long dominant narratives that omit black voices, and asks how these spaces can be more inclusive. While Le Modèle noir is a major exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, with advertising posters lining the Paris metro and people crowding into its galleries, it started outside the world of major museums. The Wallach Gallery regularly has thoughtful exhibitions, now in its recently opened Renzo Piano-designed space in Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts, but it has a relatively small profile. Posing Modernity had just over 100 works; Le Modèle noir exhibits over 300.

“In the previous year, the big blockbuster show at the Louvre was on [Eugène] Delacroix and that show was done in a very traditionally French way, very articulate but in a very safe mode, even though there were so many pictures about colonialism, animal abuse, and violence against women,” said Higonnet. “That show could have been done in a radically different way, but it wasn't. Then right across the river the very next year, the Orsay just totally changed the terms. The difference between those two exhibitions is like night and day.”

The French title translates to “the black model,” yet the exhibition is about more than black bodies as subjects, and emphasizes their agency in the development of modern art. In addition to “Olympia,” the exhibition has the smaller portraits of Laure. She posed for Manet multiple times, and Murrell discovered a record in the artist’s notebook for an 1862 appointment with “Laure, très belle négresse,” as well as her address a short walk from Manet’s northern Paris studio.

Le Modèle Noir Installation View
© Musée d’Orsay - Sophie Crépy

Le Modèle Noir Installation View

“Manet’s three representations of Laure can collectively be seen as an important manifestation of his defining artistic commitment — to paint what he saw in the daily life of modern Paris, in a radically modern style and in defiance of the romanticized classicism and exoticism that defined the academically sanctioned art of his day,” Murrell states in the catalogue.

Northern Paris was popular with both artists and free blacks in the 19th century, especially after France abolished territorial slavery in 1848. Impressionists and other early modernists, in portraying the city’s everyday life, captured this growing diversity. Edgar Degas painted the black aerialist Miss La La performing an incredible feat in which she held a rope between her teeth and rose in the air. Théodore Géricault worked with the model Joseph, from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti), for several studies. He is the central figure waving a scarf to hail some salvation on the crowded vessel of shipwreck survivors in Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” Le Modèle noir gives as much attention to Joseph the person as it does to his immortalization by Géricault, presenting a life mask and a ledger with his signature from the École des Beaux-Arts where he modeled.

While these kinds of investigations enhance the themes of the exhibition, the Orsay also added a huge installation to its atrium. Created by American contemporary artist Glenn Ligon, “Some Black Parisians” (2019) has 12 names in towering white neon. They include famous figures like Josephine Baker and Alexandre Dumas, as well as long overlooked Parisians such as Laure. Joining them is “nom inconnu,” or “name unknown.”

It’s a reminder that many people in this history still remain obscure. Le Modèle noir demonstrates that the most well-trodden paths of art history can, and should, be revisited, from viewpoints that have been marginalized. Elevating these perspectives encourages a greater appreciation for the diverse participation in art history and invites us to look at iconic works with new eyes.

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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