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  • Love African art
  • Original art & fine art prints
  • Shipped within 5 working days
  • International shipping
  • From Rotterdam to the world

Le modéle noir - The black model: from Géricault to Matisse

Musée D'Orsay Paris - 26th March to 21th July 2019

Visiting an eyeopening exhibition that took place in Musée D'Orsay spring/summer of 2019 I witnessed a unique display of great 18th,19th & 20th French artists and their studies of African models. Never before had any museum in France bundled their art including black models, a subject in the arts that was often unspoken and ignored. And the intention of the exhibition was not to represent black people as a social group but more to see how an artist would represent the model and as "bearer of values", values that existed in the mind of the artist and the values of that time. The timeframe covered starts 1788 and ends in the year 1956 in which many historical events took place that influenced the artworld. Continue reading below >>>

"The choice for a black model was not really for esthetic purposes but more for political reasons."

Pictured above: François-Auguste Biard, "Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies 27 April 1848". (previously titled "Proclamation of the freedom of the blacks in the colonies.")

Slavery was a controversial subject amongst artists and thus widely discussed and visible in their works. Many were in favour of the abolition of slavery with their artwork voicing their standpoint. The painting above is a work by Biard where he emphasises the release of the African's holding the chackles formerly arresting them. As the title reveals this painting reveals the abolition of slavery in the former French colonies. If you look closely to the left side the French flag is held high with a French official with one hand holding up his hat to the flag; this to emphasise and maintain the ongoing French colonial presence. In the other hand holding a piece of paper; likely the announcement of the abolition.

The next painting from 1800 used to be called "Portrait d'un negresse" or "Portrait of a negro woman". Now more respectfully called *"Portrait of Madeleine" is part of the Louvre museum collection since 1818. Painted only six years after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, the female artist Marie Guillemine Benoist wanted to break with the oriëntalist manner of painting people of colour in exotic clothes and scenery. The model was from Guadaloupe, one of the French carribean colonies. She was known as the a relative of the artist's housekeeper, likely her slave before the abolution. Whatever the intention of the artist was; the painting was at least a statement. For a black woman of her time she was painted in a very rare manner; with dignity. And partly nude as a neoclassical beauty. Emancipated rather than inferior, exotic or even a slave.

The painting also gained maintstream popularity in The Carters video "Apeshit". The video that was recorded in the Louvre museum has a lot of hidden meanings to it. This short 3 minute video might be an interesting watch.

*The name was only changed just before this exhibition to remove any current notion of racism. Some other paintings were renamed in the same manner; instead of being just "le noir/ the black", the model got an actual name.

The next model is Joseph, in the painting called "Study of the model Joseph". Typecast as "the African" Joseph was often hired to model for painters and sculptors at the École des beaux-arts, or School of Fine Arts. The artist of this painting, Théodore Chassériau, was a Haiti born (then called Saint- Domingue) Frenchman. Haitian on his maternal side and French on his fathers side. So he was what the French called a "métisse" or a mulatto/biracial. He was also a student of painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres had the assignment to make an image of the devil and he had decided that the devil would be a black man. An image where Satan was being thrown of the mountain by Christ. He had given his student Chassériau the assignment to make a study of model Joseph in unusual and difficult positions, not telling either Chassériau or Joseph that the goal of the study was a portrait of the devil. In the end, the portrait of the devil was never realised but the study of Joseph remains. It is a powerful image of a strong black man, his skin contrasting against the bright blue sky.

Below are three sculptures by Charles Cordier. The French sculpturist had missions to Egypt, Algeria and Greece where he was inspired to create lifelike bustes, medaillons and portraits from natives of the countries he visited. The busts are so detailed, realistic, fierce and proud. Cordier also made several other sculptures of peoples of other ethnicities with the same poise and eye for detail. His liberal viewpoints were way ahead of its time stating: "Beauty does not belong to a single, privileged race, I have promoted throughout the world of art the idea that beauty is everywhere. Every race has its own beauty, which differs from that of others. The most beautiful black person is not the one who looks most like us."

"Beauty does not belong to a single, privileged race, I have promoted throughout the world of art the idea that beauty is everywhere. Every race has its own beauty, which differs from that of others. The most beautiful black person is not the one who looks most like us." - Charles Cordier

Orientalism was a much loved amongst subject amongst artist in this time. It was a way to express the fascination and admiration of the Orient's beauty. If one looks closely it also emphasises how the West views the East. The Orient was seen as sensual, mysterious, wild, primitive and uncivilised. An idealisation, a combination of realism and Western fantasy of the "other" world.

"For sale, slaves in Cairo" was painted in 1872 by Jean-Leon Gérôme after the artist's travels to Cairo in Egypt. Fascinated by the orient here returned to Egypt at least 6 times. He was inspired by the daily life of Egyptians visiting café's, mosks, the soukh (bazar/market) and other public places. Unlike other artist's of his time, like for example the impressionists Monet and Manet, he didn't paint his works on the spot. He observed and observed and started to work only when he returned home to his atelier dreaming of what he had just experienced. Very elegantly he captured the simplicity and the beauty of the ladies. The pink flower in the African lady's hair accentuates the warm tones in her melanated skin. The use of warm colours give off the warm vibe that the streets of Cairo must have exuded. The addition of a monkey and a parrot add to the setting of a wild Middle Eastern market place.

Another typical oriëntalist painting by the same artist Gérôme. In one of the many bath houses in Turkey an African woman is bathing a Turkish woman. The focus on this painting is the milky white ladies body; the lightness of her seemingly soft skin, her curvy lines, with the African lady approaching her with bath water, is showing the onlooker the beauty and the idealisation of soft white female bodies.

The next painting is by Charles Laval called Femmes au bord de la Mer. Laval accompanied Paul Gaugin to his trip to Tahiti. Both fascinated by the pacific life and their peoples they painted their everyday life. Van Gogh called his work of "His negroes; pure poetry, tender and suprising. A true poet."

Below a painting by Felix Valloton about the Tirailleurs of Senegal. The Tiraileurs were a Senegalese colonial army who had their foot not only in French colonial territories but were also recruited to fight for France in World War I. Of the 200.000 recruits 30.000 had lost their lives. In the painting the soldiers appear to be resting, with their skintone in sharp contrast with the colours of the baracks. Their red and blue caps standing out of the beige scenery. Their skin and their hats must have been so striking to the artist that he emphasised it so much in this painting.

Henri Matisse was an expressionist who had painted Italian model Lorette many times. In his work "Aicha & Lorette" he continued the trend of adding a black model either as a focus point or as an extra. Lorette has her arm around Aicha, both in a casual posture. The artist portays them as equal, they could even be friends.

Where some might argue that the range is too broad to have a coherent exhbition, one clear commonality of all works is how artist's viewed black people and how they knowingly and unknowingly portrayed their models with their preconceptions. The exhibition displayed a wide range of artworks from different movements between 1788 and 1956. The French abolition took place first in 1794, which was afterwards reinstated by Napoleon in 1802. Most artist's were widely against slavery and demonstrated against it through their canvas and marble.

In 1848 slavery was finally abolished. By that time many artistic circles had black muzes who were admired and mostly seen as exotic, different thus intruiging. The black skin of the black muzes contrasted so well with the white lily skin in order to emphasise the beauty and the purity of their white counterpart. Although in favour of abolition and even French civilian status, there is always that subservient imposition of the black model. Throughout the years there is some development in the status of the black model; less of a subservient role to a more "positive" and quite stereotyped image. Further into the exhibition are examples of growing black communities within France who often had a position in music - Paris had a thriving Jazz scene in the 1920's and 1930's -, theater and the circus. Gifted and revered as Josephine Baker was, it is unthinkable today for a black artist to take part in a minstrel, blackface type performance. Below picture of Josephine and fellow dancer is CRINGEWORTHY to me. I guess she adapted to the white audience that has always been interested at gazing at the exotic, the wild, the other, the not so equal. <<<<<<<

Alexandre Laemlein, "La Charité"

Joseph-Léon-Roland de Lestang-Parade
Mort du Camoëns

Frédéric Bazille
La Toilette

Un soudanien

Fernand Cormon
Jeune femme de profil dit aussi Jeune africaine

John Philip Simpson, « L’esclave captif », 1827

Frédéric Bazille, « Jeune femme aux pivoines », 1870

Théodore Chassériau
Esther se parant pour être présentée au roi Assuérus

François-Léon Bouneville, « Esther », 1844

Eugène Faure, « Femme portant une gerbe de blé et une corbeille de fruits », 1866

Edgard Maxence L’Attente (1894)

Eugène Delacroix, « Jeune homme vu en buste, la tête coiffée d’un turban rouge »,

Miguel Covarrubias Femme a la Robe Bleue (1927)

Edgar Degas
Miss Lala au cirque Fernando

Paul Gauguin
Tête de femme, Martinique

André Derain, « Joueur de mandoline », 1930

Moïse Kisling
Portrait d'Aïcha

Félix Vallotton

Kees Van Dongen
Jack Johnson

Man Ray, « Rire de rêve », 1937

Paul Colin, « La revue nègre », 1925

Édouard Manet, « Olympia », 1863

Aimé Mpane
Olympia II

Larry Rivers
I like Olympia in black face