A recent exhibition – Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today – at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY organized by Denise Murrell on the basis of her Ph.D. work, had at its core three paintings by Édouard Manet (1832-1883, French):
Baudelaire’s Mistress (Portrait of Jeanne Duval), 1862
La Négresse (Portrait of Laure), 1862/63
Two of the three paintings and a reproduction of Olympia were accompanied by those of some of Manet’s contemporaries.
These paintings illustrated a part of the milieu of the French artistic avant garde of the last half of the 19th century: a milieu which included members of the free black community living in Paris.
Documented were some of the activities of black women of that time.
La Baiser Enfantin (The Childhood Kiss), 1866, oil on canvas. Jacques-Eugène Feyen, 1815-1908, French.
Loaned by Palais de Beaux Arts, Lille to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
The curator noted that this painting was admired at the same Salon which rejected Manet’s Olympia partly because of the more traditional rendering of the black nursemaid.
Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus, 1879, pastel on faded blue paper. Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, French.
Loaned by the J. Paul Getty Museum (photo from its web) to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19
The subject was a Prussian biracial star of the Cirque Fernando.
Folies Bergères, Miss La La, 1880, lithograph. Jules Cheret, 1836-1932.
Loaned by the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra National de Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris to the Wallach Gallery, University of Columbia, NY in 2018/19
The subject was a Prussian biracial star of the Cirque Fernando.
Young Woman with Peonies, and detail, 1870, oil on canvas (with light interference).
Frédéric Bazille, 1841-1870, French. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19
A friend of Manet, Bazille is thought to have painted this, one of two, to commemorate Manet’s love of peonies.
These paintings also document the view of these women as other: exotic, sexualized, subordinate, submissive.
La Toilette, 1869-1870, oil on canvas, and detail. Frédéric Bazille, 1841-1870. On loan from the Musee Fabre, Montpellier
This painting, in the Orientalist manner favoured by Bazille’s teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904, French), was rejected by the Salon. After which rejection, the artist focussed on modern subjects.
African Venus, 1851, bronze. Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, 1827-1905, French. Photo by Annie Tritt for the New York Times. Loaned by the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
Odalisque, 1853, salted paper print and detail (with light interference). Felix Jacques Moulin, 1802-1879.
Loaned by the Département des estampes et de la photographie de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris to to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
The exhibition continued with the portrayal of black women by Matisse.
The curator noted that Matisse visited New York four times in the 1930s. A fan of jazz, he visited Harlem jazz clubs and attended black theater. During WW2, he lived in Nice where three of his models were biracial women.
One was Elvire Frantz-Van Hylfte.
Jeune Femme en Blanc, Fond Rouge (Young Woman in White, Red Background), 1946, oil on canvas. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French.
Loaned by the Centre Pompidou, Paris to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University in 2018/19
The model was Elvire Franz-Van Hylfte, a biracial woman born to a Congolese mother in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Face of a Haitian Woman, 1945, crayon transfer lithograph. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French.
Loaned by the Baltimore Art Museum to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19
Danseuse Créole, 1951, cut gouache paper mounted on paper. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French.
On loan from the Musée Matisse, Nice to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia, University, NY in 2018/19
Thence to the Harlem Renaissance in early 20th century New York.
The work of artists of this time and place, the curator noted, evolved from their consideration of African and European art and their commitment to portray black women as modern, unafraid, and confident, feminine, mysterious also.
Mahlinda, 1939, oil on burlap. William H. Johnson, 1901-1970, American.
Smithsonian Museum of American Art on loan to the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University in 2018/19.
Girl in a Red Dress, 1934, oil on canvas. Charles Alston, 1907-1977, American. Photo from the net.
Private loan to the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University in 2018/19.
The curator noted that this representation meets the ideal of the ‘New Negro’: a woman defiantly black, confident, feminine; but mysterious and modern also.
Representations of black women in this exhibition concluded with work by contemporary artists – European, African, North American – which reconsider the three paintings by Manet.
It was Charles Baudelaire, poet and lover of Jeanne Duval, who exhorted artists to be ‘painters of modern life’.
Modern life which moved the representation of black women from a sexualized and exotic otherness to a recognition of their real roles in the real world even if they were (are) not entirely mistresses of their own fates.
Below are the three focus Manet paintings and some of the contemporary works exhibited at the Wallach Art Gallery which speak to and about the representation of black women in those three works and in today’s world.
Manet’s La Négresse (Portrait of Laure), 1862/63
La Négresse (Portrait of Laure), 1862-63, oil on canvas. Édouard Manet, 1832-1883, French.
Pinacoteca Giovanni e Mariella Agnelli, Turin on loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
‘Laure, une très belle négresse’ was Manet’s description of his subject.
An African Woman, after Eva Gonzalez, c.1888, zinc etching and aquatint on grey paper. Henri Guérard, 1846-1897, French.
Private collection loaned to the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, NY 2018/19.
This is a reworking of a portrait by Manet’s former student, Eva Gonzalez, the wife of Henri Guérard. She died in 1863.
Din, une très belles négresse #1 (Din, a very beautiful black woman #1), 2012; rhinestones, acrylic, oil and enamel on wood panel, and detail.
Mickalene Thomas, American born 1971.
Loaned by the Jimenez-Colon Collection, Ponce, Puerto Rico to the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19
Laure (Portrait of a Negress), 2018, oil on canvas, and detail.
Elizabeth Colomba, French born 1976, active in the United States.
Courtesy of the artist on loan to the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/9.
Laure, in a painting after a painting of Gustave Caillebotte’s Rainy Day, 1877, is walking to Manet’s studio. She is stylishly dressed and quite in charge of her own life. The curator noted that the artist has, nonetheless, retained – in English – the pejorative term which assigned Laure to anonymity in art history.
Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Duval, 1862
Baudelaire’s Mistress (Portrait of Jeanne Duval), 1862, oil on canvas, and detail.
Édouard Manet, 1832-1883, French.
Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary on loan to Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
Jeanne Duval, a biracial woman was Charles Baudelaire’s lover for 20 lively years and his muse for a suite of poems in the poet’s 1857 Les Fleurs du Mal. His mother despised her and disowned her son for this relationship.
Portrait of Jeanne Duval, February 28, 1865, china ink on paper.
Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867, French. Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Photograph taken by Jean-Gilles Berizzi.
Jeanne: A Melodrama 1, 2002, colour photograph (with light interference). Maud Sulter, 1960-2008, British. Private loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
Jeanne Duval, Olympia and the artist herself find themselves together in this collage. The artist was herself biracial.
Jeanne Duval and Olympia look at the viewer. The artist is on a boat on the Seine looking towards both The Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. The curator of this exhibition pointed out that it is the interpretations of art history by these two museums which is the subject of the work.
Lena-Jeanne, 2014 printed 2018, digital print on Fujiflex paper mounted on aluminum. Lorraine O’Grady, American born 1934.
Artist loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, University of Columbia, NY in 2018/19.
The curator noted that the artist recognized parallels between her mother and Jeanne Duval: similar challenges faced by two women belonging each to two different cultures. This is one in a series.
Manet’s Olympia, 1863
Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863. Édouard Manet, 1882-1883, French. Photo from the website of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The model for the black maid is the same woman as La Négresse (Portrait of Laure) of 1862-63.
A painting which shocked as much for the direct and confident gaze of a woman taken to be a prostitute as its style which did not conform to the accepted canon.
Patchwork Quilt, 1970, cut and pasted cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition board. Romare Bearden, 1911-1988, American.
Loaned by MOMA, NY to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
Olympia has more than been displaced. She has vanished. The black female figure in Manet’s Olympia is the central object of desire in this rendering.
La Servante du 3 II 10, homage to Manet’s Olympia, 2010, mixed media , and detail. Jean Pierre Schneider, French born 1946. Loan by the artist to to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
The curator noted that this one of a series of paintings in which this artist investigates the formal qualities of Olympia’s maid. His interest is to use abstraction to analyze content.
Olympia II, 2013, layered plywood chips, and side view. Aimé Mpane, Congolese born 1968.
Private loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
The chips of layered plywood’s thin outer layer have been shaved away to reveal its brown second layer in the shape of an African Olympia who, the curator says, is to be taken as an African Everywoman.
The floral bouquet is offered by a white woman, looking out with confidence at the world, even though (because?) her bouquet contains a skull. Olympia looks askance at this offering.
Elisa, 2013, digital C print. Awol Erizku, Ethiopian, active in the United States, born 1988. Private loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
The subject is a prostitute. She lives and works in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The artist showed her a photograph of Manet’s Olympia in a book. The young woman adopted Olympia’s pose on her bed in the spartan room in which she works.
American Beauté, 2001, reprinted 2018, digital C print mounted on aluminum.
Renee Cox, born 1960 Jamaica.
Artist loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19
The curator notes that this is Laure as Olympia’s maid offering her flowers and herself to us confidently and without the diffidence that inhabits 19th century portrayals of black women. This image is part of a series which includes the artist’s Olympia’s Boyz.
That her head and face is missing is a little worrying. Is this a black Everywoman today? Or is this a recognition that we are still on the long road for recognition of our total humanity and autonomy?
A Matisse Studio Session with the Model, Carmen at the Villa Le Rêve, Vence, 1946. Photo taken by Hélène Adant, 1903-1985, French. Loaned by the Centre Pompidou to the Wallach Art Gallery in 2018/19.
The artist was illustrating Les Fleurs du Mal and, asking the model, Carmen Lahens to strike appropriate poses for this illustration, later expressed his appreciation that she had done so.
Odalisque, 2013, slide projection on penmanship paper with gold leaf. Ellen Gallagher American born 1965.
Artist loan to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19.
Working from a photo by Man Ray of Matisse and a model, this artist replaced Matisse’s face with that of Sigmund Freud and the model’s face with her own.
It is Freud who is being studied, observed.
In art historical terms, the curator’s point is that changing modes of representing black women were fundamental to the development of modern art in the West.
The political subtext is as fundamental: that full political emancipation and individual autonomy are not reached by people if they are neither seen nor represented in their full humanity.
If they are not able to represent themselves and have those representations seen by the community of which they are a part.
The exhibition is being moved imminently to the Musée d’Orsay and will end its year in Guadeloupe.
The time period of focus in Paris is to be from Géricault to Matisse; and the exhibition is said to be being doubled in size.
The American press reports that only one 21st century work is to be included: that of Aimé Mpane (above).
One has to hope that this limitation does not result in even the slightest bleaching of the political sense of this exhibition,
the slightest rotation of the spotlight away from the long struggles of women for political and personal emancipation to linger an apolitical light on Olympe, a masterpiece of the French pictorial tradition, bold and courageous and seductive half way to heaven. Resplendent now in her most beautiful museum of a home.
Because if it does, what can we say but……plus ça change…….?