A leading French museum has launched a landmark exhibition renaming classical masterpieces after their black subjects, casting new light on the role of people of color in art.
Focusing on three historical periods — the slavery abolition era, the age of New Painting (which included artists such as Cézanne and Édouard Manet) and the 20th century avant-garde — the exhibition will look at the “major contribution of black people and personalities to art history,” the museum said.
It will aim to transform black subjects in art “from a stereotype to an individual, from a not recognized figure to a recognized one,” and in turn explore the identities of long overshadowed figures.
Manet’s ‘Olympia’ has been renamed ‘Laure’ after the black maid presenting flowers to the nude woman. Credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Denise Murrell, who created the exhibition based on her Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University in New York, centered her research on Manet’s “Olympia,” which depicts a naked prostitute being brought flowers by a servant. In the exhibition, the painting has been renamed “Laure,” in honor of the black maid who stands beside the nude woman.
“I decided I wanted to excavate the narrative of Laure, the black model who posed as the maid in Olympia,” Murrell said in a video statement for Columbia University.
“As I went about doing that, I saw that Manet’s Olympia was a subject not just of his own work, but also of the work of artists of successive generations. I became aware just how extensive a pattern of images existed across the last 160 or so years.”
Murrell told Agence France Presse that the role of people of color in art had often been eclipsed by “unnecessary racial references” and generalized names such as “negress” and “mulatresse,” the French feminine for mulatto which is thought to be derived from the word mule.
She noted, however, that people of color have played a central role in French art, from Jeanne Duval, who was the muse of poet Charles Baudelaire, to novelist Alexandre Dumas. “There was a black presence in avant-garde circles when artists and writers defied convention,” she said.
‘The Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 27 April 1848’ by French artist Francois-Auguste Biard. Credit: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images
Murrell, along with her fellow co-curators, aimed to identify these long overlooked figures by tracking down the names of black models, saying that this already would have done had they been European.
Among the other works on display is Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Negress,” which was painted between the abolition of slavery in 1788 and its reinstatement in 1802 under Napoleon. The painting has been renamed “Portrait of Madeleine.”
“For more than 200 years there has never been an investigation to discover who she was — something that was recorded at the time,” Murrell said.
The exhibition also features Théodore Géricault’s iconic masterpiece “The Raft of the Medusa,” which includes three black subjects as shipwrecked sailors. The painting depicts the doomed 1816 colonial expedition of the ship, Medusa, off the coast of what is now Mauritania.
Little is known about the figures except for the central model, a Haitian named Joseph, whose identity is finally revealed in the exhibition.
“Joseph embodies the bare-chested sailor standing on top of a barrel, waving the scarf which symbolizes the last vestige of shared hope,” the museum said. “By introducing additional black subjects into his painting, Géricault captures his solidarity with them and provides the abolitionist cause with a potent symbol.”
Murrell explained that it is art history itself which has left out the identities of these individuals, and has contributed to the construction of these subjects as “racial types as opposed to the individuals they were.”
The exhibition, a reduced version of which was previously shown at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, will run until July 21.