black history: black images in european art

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This month we’re taking a look at Black history through the lens of art, specifically African and European art, in an effort to understand our pre-American history. We connected with Monique Y. Wells, founder of Discover Paris!, who is well-versed in the depiction of Blacks in European art. Here she’ll take us on a written tour of some of the pieces that line the walls of the Louvre in Paris as well as a couple sculptures in the Musée d’Orsay. As she outlines the works, you’ll see that Blacks indeed had a history of servitude in Europe, but we were also depicted as players in Greek myths, traders, warriors and kings.

– by Monique Y. Wells

Europeans have portrayed Africans and persons of African descent in their art since ancient times. Their depictions range from crude and stereotypical to sensitive and respectful, depending on the era during which the works were created, the circumstances that prevailed at the time the artist created each work, and the personal opinions of the artist regarding black people and their place in the world. Images of blacks in paintings and sculpture may be found in many of Paris’s finest museums, if one only takes the time to look for them.

This subject has fascinated me since my husband and I founded Discover Paris! fifteen years ago – so much so that we engaged the services of a nationally-certified guide to create a special visit to the Louvre to explore the topic. What we learned on this visit surprised us and also surprises our clients who take the tour.

First of all, the number of paintings that portray blacks is remarkable. Françoise, our guide, selected over 20 of them to present during the tour – and her list is not exhaustive!

the louvre

To learn the story of the appearance of a black magus among the three Kings who visited Christ soon after his birth is fascinating and to see the ways in which this black King is portrayed – his coloring, facial features, and his prominent position in the various paintings that depict the Adoration of the Magi – is even more so.

Black men and women are frequently portrayed in scenes depicting or evoking Ancient Greece and “The Orient,” the latter of which for the French means North Africa and Egypt as opposed to the Far East. In Acis and Galatea by François Perrier, a black male blowing a conch shell is depicted in the water between the Cyclops Polyphemus and the lovers Acis and Galatea. The painting Cambyses et Psammenitus by Adrian Guignet depicts a scene from one of the stories of Herodotus in what is apparently Nubian Egypt. And in Les Marchands Orientaux by Théodore Chassériau, we see a black man standing tall near the edge of a painting that shows “oriental” merchants engaging in trade with westerners.

Not surprisingly, blacks are often portrayed as servants in paintings. They may be men, as in The Death of the Wife of Darius by Louis Lagrenée; women, as in Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix; or boys, as in the Wedding of Cana by Veronese. In Eustache Le Sueur’s The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus, a black man tends to the burning of books in the foreground while Paul preaches from a porch in the center of the painting.

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Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (wikimedia.org)

The most extraordinary portrayal of a black woman in a painting at the Louvre is Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. A portrait of a servant brought to France by the artist’s brother-in-law, it was shown at the Salon of 1800. It captures quiet dignity, and perhaps even sadness, in the face of the subject.

Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus
Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (wikipaintings.org)

The guided visit ends in the Denon wing in a room where oversized paintings from the 19th century are hung. Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus is in this room; it portrays a black man slaying a horse as part of a killing frenzy ordered by (mythical) King Sardanapalus of Assyria after he learns that his city is under attack. Delacroix’s Women of Algiers hangs nearby.

The third and most striking painting in this room that pertains to the subject of black images in European art is Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. It depicts the shipwreck of the Medusa, a French frigate with over 150 soldiers on board that ran aground on a sandbank off the coast of Senegal in 1816. Géricault based his work on the accounts of two of the survivors of this naval catastrophe. He portrays several black and white men on a raft with a black man at the top of a human pyramid who waves a cloth at a rescue ship on the horizon.

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Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (wikipaintings.org)

musée d’Orsay

Across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is home to many magnificent works that portray blacks. My two favorites are L’Afrique by Eugène Delaplanche, a cast-iron sculpture that sits on the esplanade outside the museum, and Le Nègre de Soudan by Charles Cordier, a marble and onyx bust that sits in the nave on the ground floor inside the museum.

afrique_eugene_delaplanche
L’Afrique (DiscoverParis.net)

L’Afrique was created for the 1878 Universal Exposition as one of six allegorical female representations of the six continents known to exist at that time. These sculptures were first installed at the Palais du Trocadéro and remained there until 1935. They were installed at the Musée d’Orsay in 1985.

The woman that Delaplanche created to represent Mother Africa is nothing less than regal. She sits tall and proud and her gaze is steady and piercing. She was once gilded – we can only imagine the added splendor that this would have given to the sculpture!

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Le Nègre de Soudan (wikimedia.org)

Charles Cordier created Le Nègre de Soudan (and the accompanying bust of a female figure called La Capresse) at a time when Europeans had a keen interest in ethnology, the study of the division of mankind into races, origins, and characteristics. Scientists endeavored to categorize and rank the races of the world; the theories that emerged encouraged a belief in a superior European civilization and permitted governments to justify colonial expansion and imperialism.

Cordier wanted to contribute to ethnology through his art. But in contrast to the prevalent doctrine of European superiority, he believed that “beauty is not specific to a privileged race” and viewed his work as a means of introducing the concept of “the ubiquity of beauty” to the world. He was the only 19th century sculptor to devote time and talent to representing human diversity. None of his works, including Le Nègre de Soudan and La Capresse, reveal a trace of caricature.

For more information about Discover Paris’ Black Images in European Art visit to the Louvre and other services, visit www.discoverparis.net.

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