‘Les Très Belles Négresses’ of our Modernism

 

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. 

 

A couple of exhibitions recently tracked the changing modes of representing black women as evidence of this understanding.

 

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This painting was shown in 2019/2020 in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, NY of the work of Félix Vailloton.

 

 

 

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The White and the Black, oil on canvas, 1913. 

Félix Vailloton,  1865-1925, Franco-Swiss.

Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

There appears to be no information about the circumstances in which Félix Vailloton came to paint this in 1913.

 

The Met said that this painting may be a response to Édouard Manet’s Olympia of 1863. 

 

As if, perhaps, to note the changes which had intervened in the 50 years which elapsed between the two paintings: style, reception, sociology.

 

 

 

Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863.  

Édouard Manet, 1882-1883, French.  Photo from the website of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  

 

 

The Met went on to say, in the jargon of museums, that this is an undermining (‘a complex and layered subversion’) of the role of mistress and servant.

 

For the museum, the relationship between the two women is ambiguous.

 

I am unclear about this ambiguity.

 

The expression on the face of the black woman is pensive at the least; and  mutinous at the most.

It is not shining with love, lust, or gratitude.

 

 

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detail of The White and the Black, oil on canvas, 1913. 

Felix Vailloton,  1865-1925, Franco-Swiss.

Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur on loan to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2019/2020

 

 

Her right hand is tense and the fingers closed. Her body, hunched forward, is not relaxed.

That cigarette is aggressive. 

There is nothing to divert you from the stark, shocking contrast of these two figures:

your eyes moving back and forth between flushed cheeks and orange head-dress.

 

Even if, as some people have conjectured, the two women have a ‘relationship’,

I think to describe the supposed relationship as ambiguous is habitually cautious and unimaginative museum-speak

 

which comes down against the full humanity of the black woman,

given the history of the races in France and her colonies and territories.

 

 

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On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a policeman on a Minneapolis street. 

 

In the wave of shock and anguish which followed,

we received messages from museums and other cultural institutions committing themselves

to a complete review of their exhibition and acquisition policies as it concerns women and the minority populations of the US.

 

Unimaginative and cautious explanations of the art on the walls

is as unhelpful as minimal representation by and about women and minorities 

to the full-spirited emancipation of as many as possible and to their achievement of individual autonomy.

 

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A current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum on the (mis)representation of black women in mid-19th century France includes this famous sculpture:

 

 

 

Why Born Enslaved? modeled 1868, carved 1873, marble. 

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1827-1875, French.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

The museum notes that, although this was modeled on a real person, this is not a portrait. 

It is an eroticized and racialized figure of a Black woman as a type or category of person.

A négresse (a pejorative term): an other.  

 

 

I don’t see very much difference between the expressions of these two black women, Vailloton’s and Carpeaux’

One is a slave.  The other – France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848 – is ‘free’. 

 

 

 

Why Born Enslaved? modeled 1868, carved 1873, marble. 

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1827-1875, French.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

 

 

One is free and the other is not.

One is expressing ambiguity and the other anguish?

 

The one who is ‘free’ remains trapped by those same involuntary attributes which had enslaved her ancestors.

 

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Black women in Paris from the late 19th  and early 20th century accompanied the birth of Modernism in art. 

In New York, in the early decades of the 20th century, black women were represented as being free, being strong, modern.

 

An exhibition in 2019 – Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY

demonstrated these changes.

The exhibition was organized by Denise Murrell on the basis of her Ph.D. work.

 

It 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

Olympia, 1863.

    

 

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 circle of the French artistic avant garde of the last half of the 19th century.

 

This included members of the free black community living in Paris. 

 

Documented were some of the activities of black women of that time. 

 

 

 

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La Baiser Enfantin (The Childhood Kiss), 1866, oil on canvas. 

Jacques-Eugène Feyen, 1815-1908, French.

Loaned by the 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.

 

 

 

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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 website) to the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY in 2018/19

 

The subject was a Prussian biracial star of the Cirque Fernando.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Some paintings documented the view of these women as other: 

exotic, sexualized, subordinate, submissive. 

 

 

 

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La Toilette, 1869-1870, oil on canvas, and detail.  

Frédéric Bazille, 1841-1870. 

On loan from the Musée 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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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African Venus, 1851, bronze and gold. 

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, 1827-1905, French.

  The Walters Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

 

 

 

 

 

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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. 

 

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The exhibition continued with the portrayal of black women

by Henri Matisse (1864-1959, French):  one generation younger than Manet.

 

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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

During WW2, Matisse lived in Nice where three of his models were biracial women. 

One was Elvire Frantz-Van Hylfte.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

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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 

 

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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, and mysterious also.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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 2019/19

 

‘Laure, une très belle négresse’ was Manet’s description of his subject.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Portrait of Jeanne Duval, February 28, 1865, china ink on paper. 

Charles Baudelaire, 1821-1867, French. 

 Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  Photograph taken by Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

 

 

 

 

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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 then Musée 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.

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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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 for 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 for its style which did not conform to the accepted canon. 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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 her bouquet contains a skull.  Olympia looks askance at this offering.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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?

 

 

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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.

 

 

Whence the particular pleasure of the story quilts of Faith Ringgold.

 

In one, she represents herself dancing at the Louvre with friends.

Her image dancing in a museum is up on a wall in another museum to be seen by all of us, her community.

 

 

 

Dancing at the Louvre, 1991,  The French Collection, part 1,#1; acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed and pieced fabric. 

Faith Ringgold, American born 1930. 

Kenyon College loan to the New Museum, NY in 2022

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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