1 Never Black and White: Representing Black Women in Revolutionary France Danielle Garcia Honors Thesis Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Melissa Hyde
2 Marie Guillemine Benoist's Portrait d'une Femme Noire exhibited in the 1800 Paris Salon, stood out among the plethora of white figures that dominated the walls of the Louvre, sparking controversy due to its peculiar subject: a woman of African descent 1 (Fig. 1) Benoi st painted this remarkable picture in the decade between the first abolition of slavery in the French reinstatement of it in 1804. What did it mean to be a free black woman in this short, politically unstable period? D id she begin to conform to the paradigm of womanhood promoted by Enlightenment thinkers which mainly concerned white women, or was she defined by a separate set of cultural conventions and ideologies? In the absence of firsthand accounts of art and writin g by black women, I have analyzed the conditions of their existence, ideologies that shaped their realities and a varying range of visual and literary representations to understand something of the kind of roles and experiences the women had in revolutio nary France Through close readings of a selection of portraits and early nineteenth century novels by white European women, I argue that their representations of black women treat the latter sympathetically as compelling and multifaceted subjects. Rather than representing them in terms of cultural stereotypes, which was typical of the time, women like Marie Guillemine Benoist, Isabelle de Charrire, Claire de Duras, and Sophie de Tott presented their black subjects as beautiful i f also sometimes tragic wom en capable of feeling a range of emotions, experiencing hardships, analyzing interpersonal dilemmas, 1 Viktoria Schmid t Linsenhoff gresse, Portraiture in the Atlantic World, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 325. There has been a lot of ink spilled about this painting, which rose to fame in recent years after several scholars of eighteenth and nineteenth century French art history offered their wildly varying interpretations of this complex artwork. In my bibliogra phy, I have cited Mechtild Fend, Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Viktoria Schmidt Linsenhoff, discourse surrounding it.
3 and pondering over complex notions of identity and race. 2 Co nventional r epresentation s of black women had been shaped by and construction of black womanhood but these women went against the grain to portray their subjects with such refinement and beauty at a time when black women were finally considered legal citizens after their liberation from slavery. 3 White f eminists in the eighteenth century often made common cause with slaves because they identified their own oppressi on with that of enslaved people in attempt to categorize the plight of w omankind as its own form of slavery 4 The works by B enoist, Charrire, Duras and Tott do offer some insight however mediated into the kinds of experiences that black women could have the cultural conditions in which they lived, and the ideologies of race with which they had to negotiate Deep rooted French mentalities and ideolo gies of race did not vanish instantaneously after abolition. The physical, mental, economic, and social effects of hundreds of years of slavery could not simply be undon e Thus, restrictions on the autonomy of black women remained heavily enforced and rac ial prejudice remained the cultural norm Even if they did paint self portraits or wrote private journals, those who arbitrated dominant French culture would have prevented black women from receiving public recognition for their work or participating in an y academic discussions that would have called for the preservation of their materials by scholars The 2 Contrarily, Helen Weston, Dar cy Grimaldo Grigsby, and James Smalls are scholars whose perspectives on the sitter is robbed of her identity by the artist. I have cite d their essays in my bibliography. 3 However, unlike black men, black women were never granted suffrage. 4 Portrait of a N gresse (1800), Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2004) http://www.19thc artworldwide.org/spring04/70 spring04/spring04article/286 slavery is a woman race gender and visuality in marie benoists portrait dune negresse 1800.
4 entrenched cultural restrictions placed on them were due to reasons of racial bias, compounded by patriarcha l cultural attitudes towards women as a class During the second half of the eighteenth century, c ertain beliefs by Jean Jacques Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers gained wide currency, such as: a woman factor heavily into her worth as a potential wife and woman in general; she had a duty to her country to be a good wife and mother; she should be educated, but not more than a man; she should not have a profession even if those of the lower classes were expected to work Did these beliefs apply to black women? According to Viktoria Schmidt Linsenhoff now famous portrait, black women were able 5 Servants of aristocratic white women were not only exposed to their social circles, fashion trends, and even conversations with close friends, but in some cases they were able to participate at least up to a point. S Ourika (1823) Based loosely on a true story, Ourika was a young Senegalese girl who was raised in an aristocratic home after the Chevalier de Boufflers, feeling pity for the vulnerable child, saved her from a life of hard slave labor in the colonies by purchasing her as a gift for Ma dame de Beauvau. Growing up in home, Ourika excelled at absorbing the many facets of aristocratic life. Perhaps the prescribed conventions for upper class white women applied to Ourika, too, such that her worth comprised of her duties to the f amily, appearance, behavior, charm, and even level of education much like her white counterparts However, there was an additional set of limitations that black women experienced that white women did not, because white culture in France reinforced implicit 5 Viktoria S chmid Linsenho ff gresse, Portraiture in the Atlantic World, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 325.
5 institutional and cultural restrictions on their autonomy as legal citizens due to their blackness S uch restrictions were hardships white women experienced as well, including the struggle to obtain a proper education or to earn a sustainable income with a viable career. But as Ourika learned to her detriment t o be an educated black woman was to be an impossible category of being. A black woman artist would have been similarly impossible because artists would not instruct black women and the Acad mie wo uld not have accept ed exhibit ed or preserve d art by black women There an active rejection and exclusion of them, despite their supposed freedom and legal citizenship. Instead, white French artists and writers were the ones that created representations of black women, with which black women may or may not have identified. Although we cannot deduce their reactions to these images and texts, the varied range o f representations produced by the four aforementioned white European women can tell us quite a lot about the cultural conditions in which black women lived and the ideologies about race that they had to reckon with throughout their lives. Before the aboli tion of slavery in 179 4 which was achieved in large part by the Haitian revolution, th e institution was an abstract concept to most French people ; i t was not allowed in continental France but at the same time, black individuals were never equal or fully free. 6 Thus, the status of black women in France was always ambiguous. T he Atlantic Ocean separated French people from the horrific realities of the brutal practices in the colonies, which meant that people were for or against it without really understandi ng its severity 7 Their exposure to slaves, and 6 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/335/ 7 The Black Figure in the European Imaginary, (Winter Park: Trustees of Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, USA, 2017), 12.
6 women as servants or mistresses in aristocratic homes. These were some of the possibilities available to bla ck women in mainland France A lthough they did not necessarily work or live in upper class homes, most of the visual evidence of their presence in France during the 17 th and 18 th centuries were portraits of aristocratic French women in which they appeared as subalterns Aristocratic portraiture had long included servants, who were often black women dressed Marc Mademoise lle de Clermont en Sultane or Mademoiselle de Clermont at her Bath Attended by Slaves (1733) (Fig. 2) Mademoiselle de Clermont, the first French woman to be represented as a Turkish odalisque, is sumptuously draped in fine Sultana clothing, with a rich sc arlet color that matches the ornate rug beneath her. 8 Her company is a group of black women in Oriental costume their accessories and clothes enhance the exotic appeal of her portrait. They look up at her in adoration as they hold up her garments and accou trements figure underscores her authority over them in this visual hierarchy, taking up more of the picture plane than each of her servants. As in other images, n ot only are black women shown here providing practical service, they a re brown and black skin contrast porcelain white skin, highlighting her as the subject of the portrait. blac kness and construction of race, one that represents black women as portrait rather than painting them as subjects themselves. Such images convey a sense of how black women were typically portrayed in art, but I have pondered over t heir secondary roles as servants working so closely with aristocratic women who had access to many resources and 8 Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in eighteenth century Europe, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2003).
7 wondered if in real life they ever participated in aristocratic culture, perhaps even aspired to the conventions of womanhood embraced by their mistresses, or if they always remained camouflaged in the background and ignored. It is difficult to imagine that they did not. Claire de Duras was the first author to write a novel narrated in the first person by a black woman and s he created an imagina tive space in which her protagonist, Ourika, certainly had such aspirations, at least until she learned of her social limitations imposed by her difference. Th e range of representations of black womanhood was often paradoxical, because different groups produced images and texts that stem from their contradictory beliefs. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, t s through to the and pull between pro slavery activists and abolitionists which resulted in conflicting representations of black women On the one hand, black women were widely considered to be hideous, and when Be noist portrayed her black sitter, for many critics the 9 Paradoxically, black women were also objectified, exoticized, and hyper sexualized. On the other, women like Benoist had a different take on black women and represented them as beautiful people. But, unlike white women artists, there seems to be a lack of documentation of black women publicly or even privately responding to the discourse on their representat ion in French culture. Perhaps this restriction on black female autonomy and contributions to society is due to the engrained belief that blacks were inferior to whites, less intelligent, and savage refusing to educate black people and hindering the develo pment of their art, literature, etc. within the dominant white power structure in France 9 Mechthild Fe nd, gresse and the Visibiliy of Skin Colour, Probing the Skin: Culural Repr esentations of Our Contact Zone ( Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 207
8 Since black women had little control over their lives, or voice in French culture in this period, representations of them were in some way always affixed to the condi tion of slavery, which is why I will discuss Le Code Noir, signed by Louis XIV in 1685, to put the perception and construction of black womanhood in French culture into context. 10 The code outlined the laws governing colonial slavery, and the regulation and policing of slavery practices. It defined the over any mis not the fathe r. Slaves effectively had no rights as human beings, and the Black C ode controlled slavery practices right up to 1789. Below is an edition of the code that clarifies the status of slaves in mainland France: Edi c t of the King Concerning the Slave Negroes of the Colonies. G iven in Paris in October 1716. This is a complement to the black code, specifying the regulation of slaves sent to metropolitan France, consisting of a set of fifteen articles confirming the permanence of the initial status of the slave a nd his direct link with the colonies with impossibility for him to access freedom by the mere fact of his presence in France. 11 I emphasize this edition of the code because it reaffirms the enslaved status of most black people in France, even thousands of miles away from the Caribbean plantations. Moreover, the black women were often burdened with this classification. Surely, the long regime of Le Code Noir embedded this rule in white French mentality. This embeddedness could explain unchanged perceptions of black women and blackness in general even after abolition 10 Adrienne L. Childs and Susan H. Libby, The Black Figure in the European Imaginary ( Winter Park: Trustees of Rollins Colle ge, Winter Park, Florida, USA, 2017), 18. 11 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/335/
9 After the end of the Black Code administration in 1789 the slaves of Saint Domingue in the colonies spearheaded a rebellion against the French slaveholders in 1791 killing hundreds of white civilians in a gruesome manner. The slave uprisings occurred over the next few years, until they achieved abolition in 1794. According to T. Denean Sharpley Whiting, rebellion of Saint Domingue in 1791 where the French were slaughtered still plagued the French psyche into the nineteenth 12 (Fig. 3) It would be no surprise if average citizens in continental France resented black people after this massacre, and possibly projected this hatred onto every black individual, even the former servants or mistresses in aristocratic homes who had had no part in the rebellion Writing e de Dur as even incorporated her reaction in Ourika that when she learned of the past uprisings Until then, I had been distressed at belonging to a proscribed race; now I was ashamed of belonging 13 Not coincidentally, s oon after the Saint Domingue rebellion there were images of the derogatory stereotype that grotesquely sexualized black women, such as th e print called H ottento t e Tablier from 1793 (Fig. 4) Her features are heavily exaggerated: the shape of The exaggeration of the length of her genitalia speak to a belief of the heightened sexuality and animality of blacks. The nineteent h century, developing into more 12 T. Denean Sharpley gresse Ourika, Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 54. 13 Claire d e Duras, Ourik a, France, (1824) English translation, University of Georgia http://slavery.uga.edu/texts/literary_works/ourikaenglish.pdf
10 explicit caricatures of black female bodies to the point of unabashed ridicule, such as the Les curieux en extase ou les cordons de souliers print of 1815 A naked black woman is depicted atop a box (hearkening to slave auct ion platforms) with enlarged, unseemly lopsided buttocks, among other warped features and ogled by the white Europeans surrounding her (Fig. 5) Upon closer inspection, some of the ir funny The stereotype and the corresponding images contributed to racist ideologies about the inferiority of blacks to whites, because white artists present ed them as spectacles of nature oddities that are less like humans and more like animals. Mu ch more sympathetic, mu ltifaceted and compelling representations of black women also representations, which were often p ejorative, derogatory, and based on cultural stereotypes. In the same year as the Hottento t e Tablier print and the rise of the Haitian revolution, Sophie de Tott painted a portrait of actual Ourika in 1793 after word of this young Senegalese girl began c irculating among which has received little to no scholarly attention Ourika is the main subjec t, which is a divergence from the compositional no rms of black representation in portraiture Tott depicts the young girl in Oriental dress, partially bare breasted, kneeling holding a wreath of flowers over a marble bust of her benefactor the gesture allude s to the iconography of Nike, goddess of victory t ouching his chin affectionately, than the white portrait bust. Her more prominent hierarchical position in the composition, her smile, and her eager crowning of the bust with a wreath of flowers may suggest that she is exp ressing an appreciative attitude towards her benefactor, who had saved her from a miserable
11 with the young black sitter was a pleasant one which reveals a c hange in the way black women were represented in French culture. Perhaps could also convey E such as this should not be taken for granted Concerning the more common types of portraits of black women, David Bindman argues that the agreeable relationships between mistresses and their servants in portraits were a faade 14 It is nearly impossible to determine whether the historical Ourika really appreciated her benefactors and enjoyed her aristocratic upbringing, or if she ever wished to run away due to any mistreatment. I am more inclined to believe the former, because we can assume that she lived in a comfort able home with a benevolent family who treated her kindly, since the chevalier felt enough pity to rescue her from a life of strenuous slave labor in the colonies. It makes sense that she would have been nave about her blackness and genuinely believed tha t she was an unquestioned, beloved member of the family her from the realities of slavery in the colonies and of servanthood in continental France. Is abelle de Charrire was a woman author working in this period who also expounded upon the typical representations of black women around the same time as Tott and Benoist Her short piece entitled which wa s an unpublished elaboration of her novel Three Women (1798), details the tragic story of Bianca, the favorited slave of an aristocrat named Madame del 14 Bindman, The Black F igure in the European Imaginary, ( Winter Park: Trustees of Rollins College, Winter Pa rk, Florida, USA, 2017), 12.
12 Fonte in the French colony of Saint Domingue She kept Bianca a secret from her nephew, Victor, in fear that she would lose Bianca to hi m, but he eventually encountered Bianca while she was bathing alone in the grand bath hall envisions With water to her waist, [she arranges] flowers in a vase. She starts laughing at the amazement of the young man, and quickly stripping the leaves from all the roses she is holding, she throws them around her. This pretty way of disturbing the water and concealing herself, enchantment: from that moment he was lost in love. 15 Thereafter, Victor insisted that Madame del Fonte give Bianca to him. He stated that Bianca could be his mistress forever, because he h a s approval, Victor and Bianca have a baby named Blondina H e consider s marrying Bianca and legitimizing their child after spending two years together. To complicate matters, two actresses beg i n spending a lot of time with Victor in his house. They demand Bianca serve them, thinking that she was his slave, and Bianca immediately suspects Victor of infidelity. A weak minded and a helpless conformist in the company of his friends Victor fail s to address or put an end to the s Bianca to lash out, and their story end s with both of their deaths. Within this short, ill fated story, Isabelle de Charrire tackled several cultural ideologies of race tha t had restricted Victor and Bianca romance from blooming to its full potential. Victor stated that he had no desire to marry because he would rather be with Bianca, tacitly acknowledging that it was culturally unaccept able for someone of his status and r ace to marry his black servant with whom he had an illegitimate daughter. H e refrained from protecting her because he might have feared that society would shun him if these two actresses were to discover his illicit 15 Isabelle de Charrire The Nobleman and Other Romances, (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 288.
13 romance with Bianca This story further illustrates the stringent cultural conditions that discouraged white men like Victor from marrying black women like Bianca, due to their blackness, their status as servants, and the fact that they did not quite belong to any class, much less the aristocrac y. Yet, h aving pointed out such cultural restrictions, Charrire still presented her black female protagonist as a beautiful, charming, and emotionally complex woman She even dwells on source of her beauty. Expanding the co nventions of black female representation she gave Bianca a depth to her character that the usual caricatur al representations lacked Charrire evo cation of the goddess of love, beauty, and sex in her description of Bianca l, which may also suggest the way Benoist felt about her own sitter; that she, too, may have viewed her as a beautiful black Venus. I now bring my discussion back Portrait of 1800 Here is a sol itary black woman who takes up the majority of the picture plane, shown in view, seated in a chair, and her body cropped at the waist, which was typical of portraits made for the bourgeoisie There is no sense of depth in the ambiguous setting behind her, but the flat, golden brown backdrop contrasts the sitter's dark, smooth skin. She is wearing a crisp, white draped garment that she bundles up around her stomach, just underneath her bared b reast. The head wrap appears to be a similar white cloth wrapped intricately around her head a bit of it left hanging to frame her cheek, while the negative space between the cloth and her throat emphasizes her long neck. A royal blue shawl cascades down h er chair like water next to the delicate red ribbon that acts as a sash holding up the white drapery to her body with the help of her left hand. The light falls softly on her skin, subtly indicating the gentle curvature of her muscles and facial features.
14 The stark contrast between the white and black of the portrait signifies more than just paint on canvas. This striking vibration of opposing colors perturbed critics. An anonymous author of a "Critique en vaudeville" wrote, "The contrast wounds the eyes; the more it brings out the figure, the more hideous the portrait appears." 16 Even though this is a humanizing, beautiful, and therefore unprecedented painting of a black woman, she is still viewed by this critic as a hideous creature. The chance of such cri ticism did not stop Benoist from challenging existing tropes of blackness to create this portrait. Benoist gracefully captures her sitte portrays her in the neoclassical style, with elegant, well defined forms, and a minimalistic color palett e that hints at This portrait is the most refined image of a black woman in this era of French art history It is a remarkable image that does not portray her attending a mistress, posing like a compositional or aesthetic prop wearing an exotic Oriental costume, or highly caricatured with obscenely distorted features. At first glance the portrait does seem to play into the erot icization of the black female figure. But, as Schmidt Linsenhoff has convincingly argued Benoist grounded this painting with iconographic elements from La Fo rnarin a to construct a similar composition for her portrait (Fig. 7 ) She asserts that t he quotation of a canonical masterwork, linked with narratives on co l onial eroticism and idealism in art, transforms the frivolous connotation of the naked breast 17 Anne Lafont has recently contributed to the scholarship surr ounding this portrait with a perspective that tilts her argument away from artist intentionality and mainland France, and towards the sitter herself as well as her possible identification with a Senegalese signare in the 16 Viktoria Schmid Linsenhoff gresse, Slave Po rtraiture in the Atlantic World, ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 335. 17 Ibid, 329.
15 colonial spaces of the French Cari bbean in this period. (Fig. 8) By recontextualizing the portrait as belonging to an imperial system separate from the Parisian center in which African women had an unusual degree of agency, reveal s a deeper meaning to the work. Lafont concurs with scholars like Schmidt Linsenhoff that the iconography bared chest is part of an erotic tradition of portraiture influenced by Renaissance examples. However, she finds it more interesting to semi nudity by recalling the extent to which the representation of these breasts relates to widespread practices of 18 Senegalese signares and Creole consorts essentially commit ted to marriage contract s with white European colonists on the plantations in the Caribbean. The women knew how to take advantage of these forms of marriage contracts, particularly to achieve visible material benefits; t hus, the proud appearance of the bla ck woman painted by Benoist suggests that she was like the signares, a woman in control of her destiny. 19 brother in law, which is a game changer in terms of h ow we understand this picture : Benoist de Cavay could have asked Marie Guillemine Benoist to paint a portrait of his beloved wife which would explain the elegant execution of her likeness on canvas. Another unique feature of this portrait is her direct, frontal gaze and slight smile; the poise of her body and the stoic expression on her fac e radiate s confidence, or at least a sense of self assurance. also suggest that she was just a woman of the West In dies participating in the fashion trends of the region it is not necessarily 18 Anne Lafont, History: Taking Exception: Women, Gender, Representation in the Eighteenth Century. Presentation: Feb. 1 3, 2018. 19 Ibid.
16 related to the Phrygian cap which symbolizes liberated peoples, like other scholars have inferred. Lafont also notes that t he iconic model of the Creole, a black woman from the colonies in control of her body, had already been invented by Canadian painter Franois Malpart de Beaucout in 1786, fifteen years prior to the Parisian painting. 20 In his Portrait of a Black Woman With Still Life, the composition of a black woman cropped from the waist up, in view, single breast exposed, and wrapped in garments with a head scarf were new motifs that the artist borrowed from colonial life for her composition. (Fig.9) But, this work was not widely known until recently, and it was never given a public airing like portrait After c onsidering th e alternate perspective that places this portrait within an imperialist system, one can find an increase in and a variety of representations of black women that draws from the colonial life of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French colonies especially in the works of Agostino Brunias. abundance of paintings re vealed the widespread use of white clothing by black women. 21 In Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape (1762 1796), Brunias illustrates the diversity of black women that lived in the colonies. (Fig. 10 ) Although I have anchored the context for my argument in continental France, I bring up this Italian painter working in the West Indies to underscore how absent black women are from the art historical canon in revolutionary France There is no French equivalent of works and they were not prominent in mainland France nor were they considered part of th e canon of ar twork from the revolutionary French period they a r e more so a part of the set of exceptional representations of 20 Ibid. 21 Ibid.
17 black women that include s the works of Benoist, Duras, Charrire, and Tott all of which were considered outliers as well When Benoist painted her most famous portrait in 1800, it had been six years since the abolition of slavery, but instead of this being a progressive time where black women could begin their lives as legal French citizens, it continued to be a time full of political unrest until eventual reinstatement of slavery in 1804. Decades later in 1823, Claire de Duras wrote Ourika inspired by the Sen protagonist written in first person, which allows readers to empathize with her on a deeper level was educated like any other young women i n elite culture and partook in conventional female pastimes and accomplishments: engaging in modes of fashion, learning multiple languages, and receiving dance lessons She remained in blissful ignorance of her blackness until she overheard her mistress an d her friend talk about her inhibit her from realizing her true potential, regardless of the amount of education and wit she possessed : o bstacles such as her inability to earn her own money and not being able to marry a white m a n of her own class were all contributors to her turmoil obstacles that rang true in The preoccupation of white women over courtship, wifehood, and mother hood were objectives that Ourika would never experience because of the deep seated cultural barriers working against her due to her blackness. Ourika may have been raised as an aristocrat but she d id not share the wealth and privileges of her white benefa ctors, even though she was considered a beloved member of their family. filled with self doubt, internal turmoil, resentment, and inconsolable anguish, Duras has presented
18 a compelling black female protagonist with a believable personality, intelligence, complexity, an d depth to her character s their rapture rapidly develop ed into a phenomenon called Ourika Mania. In Robin Mitchell phenomenon, he cites Augustin Challamel a contemporary of this short lived fad by honing in on received with rapture by the general public, and was spoke of as Ourika Mitchell 22 The public was swept away by this fictional postmortem representation of the young Senegalese girl. It is notable that Ourika : poem of 1825 published novel, he portrays her as an incurable nymphomaniac beast, feeding the the girl 23 Of course, Duras could not have expected her novel, of which she had only secretly published fifty copies to distribute under an anonymous name, to become such a trend setting sensation. While was another absurd, stereotypic representation of black Ourika demo nstrated her attempt to present a compelling, 22 African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 90, https://doi.org/10.1080/17528631.2015.1085665 23 Ibid, 57.
19 multifaceted black female protagonist Perhaps her well rounded characterization was what appeal ed to the French public that they were able to read from the perspective of someone who was usually overlooked and to empathize with her throughout her tumultuous journey The representations of black women created by Claire de Duras, Isabelle de Charrire, Marie Benoist and Sophie de Tott were more captivating, multilayered representations than those that were typic al of this period. After considering the varying constructions of black womanhood and representations of black women in art and literature, they seem to become an elusive mythical creature. Even with such enthralling accounts, we can only use them to infer the ways in which the cultural conditions and deep seated ideologies of race shaped the experiences of black women P erhap s they reveal something of the kind of experiences they had in revoluti onary France: They were granted freedom and legal citizenship, yet their human rights were still a privilege; they faced lifelong institutional obstacles that prevented them from contributing their voice and creativity to French culture; they were plagued by the color of their skin, even in the eyes of those closest to them; and they live on in French art history as a kaleidoscope of paradoxical visions of their blackness by white artists who could never relate to the horrors of slavery. Yet, being a black woman in revolutionary France meant that they were also, without a doubt, exceptional. In spite of the system that refused to acknowledge, respect, and protect them the system that exploited the most vulnerable they survived. EPILOGUE After Ourika Mania there were two more decades of political tension before the final abolition of slavery in 1848. La Socit Franaise pour l'Abolition de l'Esclavage was established in 1833 wherein the members campaigned and worked for the abolition of slavery
20 in the French colonies. According to British historian, Lawrence Jennings, the French abolitionists of this society lobbied year after year to revive the emanci pation issue and maintain its position in the forefront of French politics. 24 leaders of the society held influential positions in government, such as Franois Arago, who was the Minister for the Navy and the Colonies. After a course of rebellions and battles, the July Monarchy was eventually overthrown and a Provisional Government replaced it The new administration believe d that the law abolishing slavery will have to be passed by the National Co La S ocit returned to France in 1848 after a trip to Senegal and managed to convince Franois Arago, member of the Provisional Government and La S ocit that they should not wait for the Constituent Assembly to pass the abolition law they must abolish slavery as soon as possible 25 Thereafter, the Provisional Government successfully established a decree to end slavery in 1848. Below is an excerpt from the decree: Act. I. Slavery will be completely abolished in all the colonies and the French possessions, two months after the promulgation of the present decree in each of them. From the promulgation of the present decree in the colonies, any corporal punishment, any sale of not free persons, will be a bsolutely forbidden. 26 And the rest is history, right? Unfortunately, historical issues like the effects of slavery and colonialism, racism, imperialism, and Orientalism are still relevant to us today, but present in different contexts 24 Tyler Stovall, "Lawrence Jennings, French Anti Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France, 1802 1848 The Journal of Modern History University of Chicago Press Journals 74, no. 3 (September 2002) 650. 25 Ibid 26 Eric Mesnard, The Emancipation to the Reunion Island and the decree of the abolition of slavery in the French colonial empire University of East Paris Creteil (2010), Art. 1.
21 As an epilogue to my research I would like to mention the Benoist inspired photograph Bonnie Greer (2001) by Maud Sulter, a contemporary Ghanaian Scottish artist (Fig. 1 1 ) I n future research, I will seek to explore how she further critiques, complicates, or expands conventions of black representation in visual art by reinterpreting such historical images and choosing prominent black women as sitters in her contemporary work. According to Jim Mabon in an article about the European and African educate her audience by exposing the presence of African peoples and their descendants in Europe over many centuries 27 He goes 28 kind of homage to, as well as a reinterpretation of, the rare examples of black representation in visual art of 1800. The composition of her Bonnie Greer photograph mirrors portrait : Greer is seated in view, alone in the portrait, and occupying the majority of the picture plane She mimics the direct and stoic expression on her face this expression exudes the confidence of a woman in control of her destin y and meet s the She is also wearing a white garment held up close to her body with a sash and more of it wrapped around her hair which is similar to stylistic choices for her own sitter The differences between the two portraits however, slight reinterpretation of the famous Benoist portrait : the photograph is in grayscale instead of color, with a completely black background; 27 Jim Mabon, Research in African Literatures, Winter (1998), ProQuest, 1 49 28 Ibid.
22 ra ther, complements it by emphasizing the whiteness of her garments and the highlights along the contours of her muscles, collarbones, and face ; the garment she is wearing covers her completely, as opposed to revealing her breast ; and instead of calling the photograph lack W oman, Sulter uses the name of her sitter, who is an accomplished black woman herself. Recognizing the identity of the sitter transforms the photograph into the kind of portrait that an affluent or successful individual w ould have commissioned an artist to make, much like the way aristocrats commissioned artists to have their portraits made in this manner and composition in the eighteenth century The fact that Sulter does not depict her with a bare breast is another artis tic Bonnie Greer is a public figure, it is possible that she did not want to expose herself in her photograph portrait Moreover, t he concealment of her body avoid s inciting speculation about the continued eroticization of the black female body and in the portrait. I was intrigued and perplexed by contemporary black artists who look to the past in their work, specifically eightee nth and nineteenth century French art. Maud Sulter often quotes the compositions of paintings from French art history in her oeuvre as do other artists of African descent, like Yinka Shonibare, Kehinde Wiley, and Zanele Muholi. What does it mean for contemporary artist s of African descent to recreate and reinvent artworks from the past? Do the works by these artists reflect a means to reclaim or shape African identity in response to centuries of racial stereotyping and the lack of black representation in the art historical canon? Perhaps Maud photograph is an attempt to transform the icon of a black woman in white garments seated in view into an empowering image Her portrait of Greer emanates the excellence and beauty of a compelling, multifaceted woman, much like the way Marie Guillemine Benoist, Claire de Duras, Isabelle de Charrire, and Sophie de Tott represented their own black female subjects at a time
23 when black women remained in the peripheries of French society In spired by the Femme Noire, can empower black women and hearkens to the complicated history of black female representation in revolutionary France.
24 Image Index Fig. 1: Marie Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d'une Ngresse, 1800, oil on canvas. Fig. 2: Jean Marc Nattier, Mademoiselle de Clermont en Sultane, 1733, oil on canvas
25 Fig. 3: Massacre des Hatiens franais lors du soulvement des esclaves noirs de Saint Domingue 1791, engraving Fig. 4: Hottentote Tablier 1793, print
26 Fig. 5: Les curieux en extase ou les cordons de souliers, c.1814, print Fig. 6: Sophie de Tott, Ourika, 1793, oil on canvas
27 Fig. 7: Raphael, La Fornarina, 1518 1520, oil on canvas Fig 8: Llanta, Signare, Esquisses Sngalaises, 1853, lithograph plate, printed by P. Bertrand
28 Fig. 9: Franois Malpart de Beaucout Portrait of a Black Woman with Still Life, 1786, oil on canvas Fig. 10 : Agostino Brunias, Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape, 1762 1796, oil on canvas
29 Fig. 1 1 : Maud Sulter, Bonnie Greer, 2001, photograp h
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