Black Lives Matter in Art History: Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse

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Black Lives Matter in Art History: Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse
Another French Revolution has taken Paris by storm in, of all places, the elegant Musée d’Orsay, a tourists’ favorite because of its enormous collection of great 19th-century masterpieces, from academic to avant-garde, from Thomas Couture’s lascivious Decadence of the Romans (1847) to Boleslas Biegas’s brooding proto-Cubist Sphinx (1902). The best known among “the Moderns,” Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) shook the foundations of traditional French “received ideas” for art at the Salon of 1865 and continues to challenge our “received ideas” 154 years later, this time through the eyes of an American curator, Dr. Denise Murrell, the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Wallach Art Gallery on Columbia University’s new Manhattanville, situated near the Hudson River side of Harlem.  Dr. Murrell’s doctoral dissertation on Manet’s model Laure became the exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today on view at the Wallach Art Gallery from October 24, 2018 to February 10, 2019. Through her beautifully organized selections of art and documentation, she invited “the viewer to reconsider Olympia as a painting that is about two women, one black and one white, who are both essential to achieving a full understanding of this work. . . our understanding of Western modern art cannot be complete without taking into account the vital role of the black female figure, from Laure of Manet to her legacy for successive generations of artists.” Posing Modernity grew from 140 objects to over 300 in the Musée d’Orsay’s Le Modèle Noire de Géricault à Matisse (The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse), including 73 paintings, 81 photographs, 17 sculptures, 60 prints and drawings, 1 photographic installation, and 70 auxiliary documentation (books, magazines, posters, letters, etc.), on view from March 26th through July 21st, 2019. The New York show started in the mid-19th century and ended with post-modern art. The Paris show starts in the late 18th century and ends with Glenn Ligon’s Some Black French People/Des Parisiens Noirs (2019), a work especially created for the cavernous great hall in the middle of the Musée d’Orsay. Altogether the Paris show offers a vast array of visual and textual sources that provide an extremely deep dive into history of black people represented in French art. The oldest work is a porcelain medallion of a slave in chains, pleading for recognition and treatment as an equal: “Am I not a man: a brother?,” created in 1789, the year of the first French Revolution. Aside from Glenn Ligon’s installation, the youngest work is by post-modern Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. His mosaic Olympia II (2013) casts Manet’s duo in reverse: the courtesan is black and the maid is white. This repositioning of the principal actors in Manet’s Olympia visually reinforces the educational narrative of entire endeavor: the exhibition, the catalogue, the symposia, and the performances. For here we note that the traditional approaches to art history stand in stark contrast to values we need to fully grasp the impact of modernity, launched, according to some, as far back as the Industrial Revolution. The shift from a predominately Eurocentric reception of art to a culturally-diverse reception of art can reveal unacknowledged truths that will, hopefully, set all of us free from racism of every kind. Back in 1865, when Olympia faced the public for the first time, Manet’s confrontational white prostitute (posed by the model Victorine Meurent) received the lion’s share of commentary and criticism, unleashing a trend that calcified in art history’s literature for most of the next hundred years. Meanwhile, the equally visible black maid remained either ignored or vaguely interpreted as another erotic element as well as a luxurious accessory, along with the expensive shawl, indicative of Olympia’s rank and price among the demimondaine (the flipside of respectable society). Dr. Murrell with her colleagues in Paris set out to change this perception of the black maid in the painting and the black model Laure who posed for the role in Manet’s bold statement about modernity in the 1860s. With text panels and maps as our guides, we learn about the life of Manet’s model Laure, the black communities in Paris, numerous immigrants from Francophone countries, and French-born black citizens. We also learn about the black American celebrities who introduced Afro-Caribbean entertainment and authentic nightclub jazz. The galleries are divided into twelve categories: “New Insights,”  “Géricault and the Black Presence,” “Art Against Slavery,” “Literary Mixed Races,” “In the Studio,” “Surrounding Olympia,”  “On Stage,” “The Black Force,” “For and Against the Colonial Empire,” “Négritude in Paris,” “Matisse in Harlem,” and “I Like Olympia in Black.” Let us begin in the first section “New Insights” where Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine dominates with her sober neoclassical beauty. On loan from the Musée du Louvre, this painting had been titled Portrait of a Negress (a racist term)…

Lead photo credit : Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Study for a the woman in Slave Market in Cairo, ca. 1872. Oil on canvas, 48 × 38 cm. Private Collection. © Photo courtoisie Galerie Jean-François Heim – Bâle

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2019-06-13 18:56:44
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Utterly fascinating article which took my breath away by its breadth of detail and knowledge. Every painting featuring a black subject must now be looked at in an entirely different light. Thank you Beth.