Illuminating the Black Figure in the History of European Fine and Decorative Arts
and Advancing the Scholarship
Theresa Leininger-Miller, book review; James Powell, introduction
Over the past five years in the U.S., a book series, a museum exhibition, and an anthology have illuminated a largely-unknown aspect of Western civilization.
The book series, the five-volume, Image of the Black in Western Art, based on the Menil Foundation project, was published by Harvard University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
The exhibition, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, was on view at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, October 14–January 21, 2013.
Adrienne L. Childs and Susan Libby are co-editors of the anthology, Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century, which was published by Ashgate on December 28, 2014.
(Additional publications and exhibitions on the history of the black figure in European art, originating in Europe and the U.S., are cited by Childs and Libby in their book and are referenced in the review below.)
Childs is currently working on another book, Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts.
Adrienne Childs’ interest in the history of the black figure in European art began when she was 18 and visited the Louvre with a group of young people. She was fascinated by the broad swath of 19th century art on display. The youth group was a chapter of Jack and Jill of America which provides social, cultural and educational opportunities for African American children.
That experience in Paris influenced Childs' decision to major in art history at Georgetown University. Four years later when she graduated with honors, she faced a dilemma. She wanted to continue to prepare to be an art historian. However, her grandparents (who had reared her after her mother died) advised her to go in a different direction. “They wanted me to get my MRS and persuaded me to study something they considered to be a bit more lucrative,” recalls Childs. So she earned a MBA at Howard University.
Years later, Childs’ began to reconsider a profession in art by taking “baby steps,” as she says. By this time she was married and mother to two elementary school children. “I took one class, then another,” she recalls. Then she enrolled in the doctoral program in art history at the University of Maryland – College Park where she was mentored by outstanding scholars such as David Driskell.
Studying work of the artists of the African Diaspora was an obvious fit because of her racial identity but she wanted to have a range of expertise.
Childs decided to go into the field of 19th century European art at a time when there were very few scholars of color in the field. During her graduate study, Childs noticed the broad prevalence of the “blackamoor” figure in late 18th-early 20th century European fine art, decorative arts, architectural moldings, jewelry and kitsch objects. She earned a Ph.D in art history in 2005.
“No one is going to be begging you to do you,” Childs advises, in retrospect, about pursuing one’s own aspiration. “Don’t wait. Get out and do it.”
An ambitious, creative spirit was instilled in Childs at a very early age. Until her death when Adrienne was 14, Child’s mother was an imaginative, mixed media and fiber artist whose creativity also was expressed in other areas of her life such as cooking and decorating.
Through her grandparents’ practical counsel and the example of her mother’s free spirit, Adrienne Childs developed in both ways. Her strong marriage, family life and economic stability was a good basis from which to embark on a more uncertain career in art history.
In 2006, Childs and Susan Libby, art history professor at Rollins College, decided to issue a call for papers for a panel at the annual College Art Association (CAA) conference to discuss black imagery in 19th century European art. They had no problem in organizing a panel on this relatively new area of inquiry and they had more abstracts than they could use for the Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century book that stemmed from the panel.
The “long” 19th century stretches from about 1750 to 1916.
Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century also has spawned other projects. Childs and Libby are organizing an exhibition, The Black Figure in the European Imaginary, which will open January 21, 2017 the Rollins College Cornell Fine Art Museum, Winter Park, Florida.
Adrienne Childs' work-in-progress, Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts, will be the first of its kind to survey a range of objects in the decorative arts to determine how they fit into a larger discourse of black representation in Western visual culture.
Childs' scholarship has been an on-going adventure that has taken her to museums, galleries, archives, antique shops and flea markets in several European countries. She has discovered an amazing array of historical black figures and figurines in European visual and material culture and contemporary reproductions of these historical artworks and artifacts.
Still Adrienne Childs feels people, both black and white, American and European, do not realize the importance and depth of African peoples’ historical involvement in Western civilization. She hopes that her work will help fill that gaping hole in our knowledge of world history. That work is supported by her position as an associate at the W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
James Powell founded the Hampton University Museum’s John Bigger’s Circle, a student membership group. Now living and working in New York City, Powell is an art aficionado who says he “has insatiable appetite for knowledge regarding art, curators and artists that depict and present the narratives of the African Diaspora.” He volunteers at the Studio Museum in Harlem and works on special projects at Leslie-Lohman Museum in Soho.
Childs, Adrienne L. and Susan H. Libby. Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century. Ashgate: Surrey, England/Burlington, VT, 2014. 240 pp.; 48 b/w illustrations, 8 color illustrations; bibliography; index
The eight essays in this timely collection advances scholarship on images of black people by European artists (and one mixed-race American sculptor) beyond undifferentiated binaries like “negative” and “positive” to decode and contextualize complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities. The studies explore the visuality of blackness in prints, paintings, sculpture, and photography from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth century. Collectively, the authors argue that black figures served as the quintessential image of difference in nineteenth-century European art. All of the contributors to the volume were presenters in a session at the College Art Association annual meeting in Los Angeles, California in 2009. The editors invited an additional scholar to write about photography. The intent was not to offer an encyclopedic narrative of modernity and race in European visual culture but rather to articulate “the various ways in which the black figure becomes part of the visual register in the nineteenth century.” They assert that the black body “became a star performer in the spectacle of modernity.”
Editors Adrienne Childs and Susan Libby begin their “Introduction: Figuring Blackness in Europe” by examining British/Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare’s photograph, La Méduse (2008) of his mixed media sculpture of the infamous French ship that wrecked off the coast of Senegal in 1816 leaving survivors, including black sailors, to face cannibalism and death. They begin here because Shonibare offers a multi-level engagement with the history behind both the event and its best-known visual incarnation, Théodore Géricault’s epic painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819; erroneously dated 1918 on page 2). In the work, as throughout his oeuvre, Shonibare uses batik fabric. The batik sails evoke a kind of African-ness even though they are Dutch exports. With a bird’s-eye view in the thunderstorm, we see the entire ship at a distance in a roiling ocean. Childs and Libby argue that “Without depicting one African body, the artist suggests the horror of the slave trade, the dynamics of the European presence in African, and complexities of the African presence in European art.”
In comparison to racist caricatures in nineteenth-century American art, blacks in European art of the same period frequently appeared individualistically, and as exotic, beautiful, and romantic. They were part of an increasingly international population in Europe, hailing from Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Black musicians, dancers, and other entertainers, as well as domestic servants, laborers, and seamen were commonplace. In addition to Géricault, French artists Jean-Léon Gérôme, Paul Cézanne, Charles-Henri Joseph Cordier, and Edouard Manet depicted black models with striking verisimilitude in their studios. Although some of their approaches were innovative, the painters reinforced and re-inscribed long-standing tropes of blackness, with blacks as objects of agency. The relationships were always uneven.
For the purposes of the book, the editors call people of African descent, mostly sub-Saharan, black who were part of the diasporas created by the slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism. “Blackness” is more complicated. Childs and Libby state that this is “the condition of being black as formulated by Europeans with interests at stake in notions of race.” It involves undercurrents of objectification, a pre-disposition to servitude, and tension-filled hierarchical attitudes about race and culture.
Two particularly useful sections in this introduction are those on historiography and exhibitions. The editors cite the landmark publication series by the Menil Foundation, The Image of the Black in Western Art, first published in 1974, and its reincarnation by Harvard University Press in 2010 with full color reproductions. The press also published three new volumes to complete the project, covering Western visual arts from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Subsequent publications that made significant contributions to this growing field came out in 1990, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2008. In Europe there have been several important exhibitions, such as those on black Victorians at the Manchester Art Gallery and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (2005), that on slavery at the National Maritime Museum in London (2007), and that on images of blacks by artists of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to the present at Die Nieuwe Kerk Museum in Amsterdam (2008).
To conclude, the editors provide summaries of the disparate essays, case studies of both imagined and real encounters between European artists and the black body that acknowledge the instability of race as a concept. Childs and Libby assert that despite the variety of the contributions, they all situate the black body as a site of conflict, where Europeans “could negotiate, rationalize, interrogate, and disguise clashing European notions of beauty and ugliness, slavery and liberty, the familiar and the remote, tradition and innovation—and, of course, black and white.” One of the distinctions of this collection is four chapters that address the presence of specific people whose lived experiences impacted European art.
In Susan Libby’s chapter, “The Color of Frenchness: Racial Identity and Visuality in French Anti-Slavery Imagery, 1788-94,” she argues that although Europeans generally reviled blackness, it functioned as a necessary precondition for liberty. Most French anti-slavery imagery existed in book illustrations or single-leaf prints, using racial difference (particularly blackness) to define French virtue, sensibility, and national identity while political conditions in the Caribbean colonies and on the mainland changed rapidly. Libby demonstrates how depictions of the kneeling slave in chains pleading for liberty, such as “Ne suis-je ton frère?” (1790), adapted from the English William Hackwood’s design, manipulate European concepts of black inferiority to elicit viewers’ sympathy. She states, “By asking a question that could be refused…the slave cedes control of his very humanity.” Astutely, Libby says that the question “both affirms a human self and exposes its limits.”
Libby also shows how profile portrait-style prints of slaves wearing Phyrgian caps announcing their freedom after the 1794 abolition situates the slaves as “mimic men” (and women) whose blackness reifies the French “invention “ of liberty. She argues, “This suggests a liminal state for the “libres aussi,” whose liberty is approximate and contingent, thus mimetic, as the caption tells us: “Me free also.” The figures fulfill a need for a manageable “other” who imitates and mirrors the dominant subject. Still another set of images, frequently thought of as anti-slavery, actually concern the struggle of free people in the colonies to achieve equal rights with white colonists. Libby asserts that here, tropes of blackness represent a transition to whiteness, equated with French citizenship.
Libby concludes with the famous painting of a former slave, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson’s Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley (1747-1805), Deputy of Santo Domingo at the French Convention (Salon 1798). The work differs from the prints discusses earlier in multiple obvious ways. It is a nearly full-length oil painting of a recently freed black man of achievement. He leans his elbow on the base of marble bust of Guillaume-Thomas Raynal whose book from 1770 was praised and lambasted for its criticisms of French colonial policies and the slave trade. Libby asserts that Belley is the quintessential “bon sauvage” and he remains a mimic man, dependent on French wisdom for his freedom.
In “US and THEM: Camper’s Odious Ligne Faciale and Géricault’s Beseeching Black,” Albert Alhadeff describes how early 19th-century scientists used craniology as supposed evidence of inequality among the world’s races in terms of intelligence, capacity for civilization, and beauty. The Dutch anatomist and physiologist Petrus Camper founded the new science of craniology. His posthumous publications claimed that Africans had uniquely narrow and constricted skull configurations dramatically different from the expansive craniums of whites. The French artist Théodore Géricault seems to have embraced this racial demagoguery in preparatory sketches for his magisterial painting, Raft of the Medusa (1819) in the beseeching black figure whose misshapen head shows his link with the “lower races.” However, Géricault apparently overcame such racial stereotyping in the finished work. While Géricault initially denigrated the three black mean in his painting, he ultimately elevated them, literally, in the final painting.
As Albert Boime explained, Géricault disparaged blacks, basing his racial ideas in part on those of the racist social scientist, Julien-Joseph Virey. Virey’s drawings, “Columnar Rise of Heads in Profile, with Head of Apollo, that of a Negro and an Orangutan” (1801/1821) and “Columnar Rise of Heads in Profile, with Head of a White Man, a Negro and an Orangutan” (1824) (figs. 1 and 2), make clear his racial hierarchy. In both sets, an animal with an extended jaw is at the base. At the pinnacle of each is a Greco-Roman head with a 90-degree brow (Apollo in the first, a white elder in the second). They clearly overpower the black men in the middle whose slanted foreheads place them closer to beasts below than those with authority and capacious learning above. Based on a study for the painting in a private collection in Switzerland in which the beseeching black man between Corréard and Savigny looks very much like Virey’s 1808 study, Alhadeff finds that “Géricault’s image of a man of color can seamlessly stand for Virey’s image of a man of color.” To prove his point, Alhadeff crops Géricault’s pencil sketch of the man’s head and replaces the black man in Virey’s column.
In Géricault’s final painting, the black man is no longer at the triangle’s apex nor in profile. Now he is in three-quarter view next to a youth with swept-back hair whose forehead is more slanted than that of the black man and partially overlaps his. This is a juxtaposition that refers to Camper’s drawing of 1794 where black and white faces are overlapped. Alhadeff finds this point crucial: “Whereas Camper’s strict overlapping of profiled heads denigrates blacks, Géricault’s tentative overlappings disrupt racial codes: now the wind-swept youth is assigned a profile whose slant calls to mind men of dark skin, while the dark-skinned man at his side is assigned an all but acute profile.” What was abased has been uplifted and vice versa. Alhadeff asserts that Géricault’s stalwart stripling is for him what Virey’s Apollo was for him. The lines were now drawn between “us” and “them” and Géricault was ready to reconcile the two.
Alhadeff takes his interpretation further. He notes that together, as equals, the black and white youths scan the horizon for a ship but now it is the white lad who has the supplicating gesture of clasped hands and the black man clasps the wrists of his companion. The exalted black man is no longer just a prop or hapless being but, like the others on the raft, castaway at sea who longs to be saved. Alhadeff concludes “In effect, a volte-face has taken place, one with totemic significance as it sets him free—and by implication all other blacks per se—from Camper’s odious ligne faciale.” With its frequent exclamation points and humorous parenthetical asides, this was one of the most refreshing and engaging essays to read. It is likely that Alhadeff is a captivating lecturer and effective teacher.
Paul H.D. Kaplan completed yeoman’s work for his essay, “A Mulatto Sculptor from New Orleans”: Eugène Warburg in Europe, 1853-59,” by uncovering many facts about Warburg and his abolitionist patronage. Warburg may have been the first African American visual artist to become an expatriate in Europe, although others, such as marble-worker Florville Foy and painter Julien Hudson, both also from New Orleans, studied in Paris in the 1830s before him. The son of the German Jew Daniel Warburg and Warburg’s enslaved mistress, Marie Rose Blondeau, from Santiago, Cuba, Warburg studied under the French sculptor, Philippe Garbeille, in Louisiana. He produced funerary monuments, mythological scenes, such as Ganymede as Cup-Bearer to Jupiter (ca. 1850, now lost), a genre scene of a boy playing with a crab, and portraits. Warburg then was able to study in Paris because of a complicated legal transaction with his father in which the son procured money from the sale of his long-deceased mother’s three slaves.
Three of Warburg’s works appeared in the 1855 Salon, including a Neoclassical bust of John Young Mason, the U.S. Minister to France, one of only two of the sculptor’s pieces that is extant (now in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society). The high regard with which the portrait was held is evident in the fact that sixty American expatriates and visitors to Paris paid for the bust by subscription, then donated it to Mason’s wife. Although Warburg was lauded in newspapers, he made little money and constantly sought aid, as from the wealthy New York lawyer Maunsell Bradhurst Field, who commissioned a work from him. Warburg’s search for patronage may have been what led him to travel to London. After writing to the novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Warburg met her there in October, 1856. Stowe then engaged Lady Byron (Anna Isabella) and the Duchess of Sutherland to help her aid Warburg by facilitating the commercial production of his work in England.
The focus of Kaplan’s meticulously researched essay is a recently discovered Parian or statuary porcelain sculpture, Uncle Tiff (1856, private collection). The 12-inch high piece depicts one of the primary characters in Stowe’s novel, Dred (1856), an elderly male Tiff, embracing a small white boy, Teddy, who sits in the slave’s lap. The likeness approximates Stowe’s description with such details as a cradle, eyeglasses, darning work, a shawl, and Tiff’s African features as well as his receding hairline and kind countenance. Copeland produced the statue and marketed it to both aristocratic and middle-class audiences. In its overall whiteness, the piece is markedly different from colored and caricatured Staffordshire pieces of the period.
Kaplan provides fascinating accounts of Warburg’s travels from London to Germany to Italy, where he socialized with American painters in Venice, then travelled to Florence before settling in Rome and dying there young after a protracted illness. As Kaplan concludes, Warburg “was the epitome of a person of complexly mixed elements—not merely slave and free, and black and white, but of German Jewish, French and/or Spanish, and African ancestry—yet his two surviving works focus on the “purely” white and the “purely” black.”
Ira Aldridge was the first important African American Shakespearean actor. Traditionally, whites in blackface had played the role of Othello. Aldridge was one of the first black actors to play Shakespeare’s “Dark Prince,” but was barred from the London stage because of his race. His performances in British provincial theaters, particularly in the anti-slavery centers of Manchester and Hull, became known throughout Europe because afterward he spoke to audiences about slavery. In Earnestine Jenkins’s chapter, “Ira Aldridge as Othello in James Northcote’s Manchester Portrait,” she argues that Northcote’s sensitive painting, Othello, the Moor of Venice (1826, Manchester City Galleries), is a portrait of both Aldridge and Othello, two different subjects. By merging the black actor and the black character, Northcote seems to have challenged popular notions of blackness, offering more depth and complexity than previously attributed to the enraged Moor.
Jenkins asserts that Aldridge was one of the most visually documented public black figures of the mid-nineteenth century in Europe, appearing in academic art, playbills, posters, lithographs, and photographs. Given his medium-brown skin, he was not easily racially typed and could visually accommodate multiple racial or ethnic identities. Known as a master colorist, Northcote skillfully captured a range of hues in Aldridge’s face—light and medium brown tones, pink, yellow, and green. The painter eschewed the overt props and attributes typically associated with the “tawny Moor,” such as a flamboyant robe and sword, as well as dramatic gestures considered traits of non-rational racial types. Northcote’s Romantic portrait instead emphasizes dramatic lighting and psychological intensity. Aldridge wears a luminous white shirt against a bluish grey background (in an “almost spiritual light”) and looks hard to his right. The strong sense of animation is devoid of caricature and, according to Jenkins, “broadens the idea of “blackness,” responding to increasing complexities of racial identity in reference to the African diaspora during the nineteenth century.” The main reason Jenkins suggests that this painting is a portrait of Aldridge as much as Othello is that Northcote depicted him as a clean-shaven, inexperienced, and vulnerable eighteen year old, approximating the real-life age of the actor in 1826. Why Jenkins specifies the age eighteen is unclear. Born in 1807, Aldridge would have been nineteen in 1826. Jenkins also asserts that the sideways glance indicates the jealousy, anxiety, and suspicion associated with the middle-aged character of Othello. Thus, the portrait seems to continually shift between two racially charged identities.
Although the overall thrust of the essay is plausible, there is still doubt that the painting really is a portrait of the actor. Details about its making are unknown. There is no record of a meeting between Northcote and Aldridge, so it is uncertain whether Aldridge actually sat for the composition. Daguerreotypy was not available to the public until 1839, so Northcote could not have had access to photographic images although he could have seen other artists’ or illustrators’ renditions of the actor. As a theater-goer, he may have seen Aldridge on stage. Nevertheless, Northcote’s original title of the piece was Head of a Negro in the Character of Othello; he did not specify the sitter and many actors other than Aldridge, including men of color, had played the role. Apparently, “tawny-skinned “Arab chieftains” in the role of Othello were more common during the first part of the century.” Perhaps documentation will surface that proves that Northcote’s painting truly depicts Aldridge.
This chapter had the fewest illustrations of all, just four. One wishes that Jenkins had had space to compare this work with other artistic depictions of Aldridge. It also would have been helpful to know whether Northcote had made portraits of any other people of color and how this work compared with them.
Adrienne Childs analyzes depictions of the black female body by the foremost academic Orientalist painter of the nineteenth century in “Encoding Blackness: African Women in the Art of Lean-Léon Gérôme.” She finds that Gérôme’s images reify historical tropes of blackness and exoticism in Orientalist representation and also operate in dialogical relationship to the white sexualized “Oriental” woman whom black women typically accompanies in the French artist’s work. Childs argues that the black female body is a telltale sign of the Orient and an index of the exotic feminine sphere, an area that is partly defined by blackness. She explores the contemporary rhetoric of the various binaries between the dark servant and the white mistress, constructs that had wide appeal to audiences and critics.
Childs opens her essay by quoting Gérard de Nerval’s travelogue, Voyage en Orient (1851) which presented conflicted ideas about black women. While at first Nerval described “Negresses” in a Cairo slave market as so ugly as almost to be bestial, he then pivoted completely to praise the rare, exceptional beauties. Although he claimed no real desire for the “lovely monsters,” he said they would provide the requisite contrast for form and hue that would showcase pale Cairene women, whom they would serve. Nerval’s ambivalent reaction to these black female slaves would characterize the approach of many European Orientalists, including that of Gérôme in his paintings, The Slave for Sale (A Vendre) (1873) and Moorish Bath (Bain Maure) (1872). Childs argues that when European females (meant to represent the nebulous concept of “Oriental” women) are paired with black women in these works, “the total is greater than the sum of the parts”…”in a sensuous play on race, rank, and servitude.” Her study breaks new ground in that little attention has been given to the critical role that black female figures play in defining Orientalism in Gérôme’s works. While Childs admits that the use of binaries can be limiting, she states that these paintings “are firmly and consciously grounded in oppositionality as an operative mode.”
Gérôme travelled to the Orient ten times between 1852 and 1880. Given his experience and his photo-realist style, contemporary audiences viewed his paintings as documentary and ethnographic. Yet his images were highly-wrought, choreographed, and subjective interpretations shaped by popular, literary, and aesthetic ideas about the Orient and inflected by a clear sense of European superiority. As Childs argues, “Orientalism then is a way to access the black female body, a mediating methodology for deciphering an undecipherable blackness.”
In The Slave for Sale, Childs focuses on the black woman seated on the ground. Her dirty feet, slave collar, and proximity next to a monkey identify her as degenerate and as someone expected to lie in servitude. Her facial angle, in profile, reflects scientific demarcations of racial difference. Further, she contrasts the standing pale woman in her full frontal nudity who seems to express dishonor and shame. Yet the slave has alluring decorations—a red flower in her hair, tattoos, and a cowry shell necklace. Childs asserts that such accoutrements “become diversionary tactics projecting mixed messages of sensuous materiality that could draw focus from the degraded and barbaric nature of the scene.
Gérôme’s use of binary oppositions is also apparent in Moorish Bath where the black servant stands facing front in empty space wearing a turban and rough-hewn cloth while the white bather sits facing back in an enclosed space wearing no headgear and her discarded robe is made of fine silk. Gérôme departed from earlier Orientalist images in which black servants were dressed in European clothing or generic exotica by adorning his model (whom he seems to have found in Paris) with a Moroccan-style necklace in an attempt to differentiate black ethnicities within the Orient. The servant’s presence in the painting, then “was as much a formal as a narrative device, drawing upon the nineteenth-century fascination with contrast.” Childs concludes that black figures, appearing in about two dozen scenes of exotic bathers by Gérôme, were crucial to the painter’s construct of the Orient as a raced space.
Intrigued by the phrase “exceeding blackness,” used both in the chapter title and as a variant (“Occasional and exceeding blackness” in quotation marks in the final subtitle), I wondered what the art critic Edward Strahan meant by it in his book on one hundred photogravures of Gérôme’s works; the volume is cited in footnote 43. Strahan uses the phrase to describe Gérôme’s series of bathers, some of which have no black attendant. It’s an odd choice of words (especially for an American writer), as though the noun “blackness” is only encompassed by the presence of a person or people with dark skin, that is, by race and not by color—and by race that is signified only by very dark skin. I would have appreciated reading Childs’s interpretation of the phrase. It seems as though “exceeding” could function both as a verb, “to go beyond” or “transcend,” and as an adjective, as “extraordinary” or “very.” The phrase "occasional blackness" is startling and perplexing. Although Strahan seems to have meant that not all of Gérôme's bathers had a black attendant, the combination of the two words suggests that one can assume or drop perceived identities at will.
James Smalls addresses black minstrelsy in “Visualizing Racial Antics in Late Nineteenth-Century France” in terms of colonialist underpinnings of encounters with race. He skillfully examines visual and conceptual stratagems for the display and obfuscation of blackness as one way to define a modern French identity. One “visual shenanigan” of race is the transplantation of American blackface minstrelsy into fin-de-siècle Paris. Smalls demonstrates that minstrelsy’s vogue and its visual representation present a sort of “commodity racism,” in which blackness is literally played for urban, white consumption.
Smalls begins his study with French poet Paul Bilhaud’s illustration of a black monochrome rectangle placed in a drawn simulated frame, Combat de nègres dans un tunnel (Battle of negroes in a tunnel), 1882 (fig. 3). This first appeared in the journal, La Presse and was later re-published as “Battle of negroes in a cave” at night in Album primo-avrilesque in 1897. The work is considered a forerunner to Kazimir Malevich’s painting, Black Square (1915). Smalls views the image, however, not as an exercise in avant-gardism but as a work of French racialism. While this seems obvious to us today, Smalls points outs that no one has ever commented on the image’s racial and even racist aspects. He asserts, “Such a penchant for obfuscating race—of subsuming racial difference within the purview of (white) modernist practice, critique, and control—was not all that unusual in the French context of assimilation, republicanism, and the attempt by individual modernists at forging and defining a unique national and cultural identity for themselves.”
While the literature on minstrelsy in England is large, it is relatively limited regarding France. Smalls discovered that the conversion of the field into commodity was one way that the threat of blacks and blackness to “Frenchness” was neutralized. As a case study, Smalls references Jean-François Raffaëlli’s illustration translated as “Minstrel pestering a Colombine backstage” (1887)(fig. 4). Here, a performer in blackface with corporeal and physiognomic exaggeration touches the bare shoulder of a smiling white female dancer. The image demonstrates that the minstrel show paralleled in development and was combined with both the commedia dell-arte and pantomime, as well as ballet and the theater. Smalls also links blackface minstrelsy with the black dandy (le dandy nègre or flâneur) regarding images of bourgeois gentlemen prowling backstage at the Opéra Garnier made popular by Edgar Degas and Jean-Louis Forain. Raffaëlli’s minstrel imagery contributed to a developing racist ideology in France, one that expressed a totalizing view of non-Europeans that was homogenized and made undifferentiated. The French did seem to make a distinction between African Americans and Africans, however, and did not import stereotypes such as watermelon-devouring bumpkins, chicken-thieving coons, and razor-wielding brutes common in the U.S. The bon noir or bon nègre present in bamboula, a proverbial black type adapted to a French colonial character, became recognizable to French audiences. He was a cheerful musician, albeit infantile. Since he was not associated with slavery, he was not threatening or transformed into a brute.
After a brief discussion of minstrelsy’s impact on circus acts, particularly clownerie, Smalls examines the most famous black-and-white clown duo in nineteenth-century France, Chocolat and Footit. Footit (George Tudor Hall) was a British equestrian who taught American-style minstrelsy to Chocolat (born Raphaël Padilla), the son of a slave from Cuba. Orphaned early, Chocolat was bought by a merchant from Bilbao then ran away. British whiteface clown Tony Greace trained Chocolat to be an accomplished acrobat, then Chocolat teamed up with Footit in 1886 and the two performed together until 1910. He played the dimwitted but joyous fool to Footit who physically abused him. The pair became highly popular at the Folies-Bergère where Chocolat was revered for his clever use of misnomers, malapropisms, and figures of speech, fluent in both French and English. For the French, Chocolat represented a “curious hybridity and homogenization of blackness and exotic culture” and “a figure emblematic of racial and cultural alterity.” As such, avant-garde artists in the bohemian subculture of Montmartre, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, were attracted to the performer. Lautrec’s Chocolat Dancing at the Irish and American Bar (1896) (fig. 5) appears on the cover of this book. (The book cover is shown above.)
In the drawing, we see a lithe Chocolat dancing from the rear, face in profile. The image honors and critiques Chocolat at once, paying tribute to his agility and muscular development, but also assigning him a prognathic simianesque profile, perhaps a play on the performer’s monkey-jump, one of his best-known acrobatic moves. The composition demonstrates the “uncanny simultaneity of negrophobia and negrophilia, and “the stereotype that plays upon the slippages of difference and desire, fear and fascination, horror and amusement.” Chocolat was a comic and tragic figure rolled into one. Smalls concludes that together Footit and Chocolat foregrounded the spectacle of blackness as part of the modern experience while helping to define French identity “through a persistent and insistent visual and performative demarcation of racial and cultural alterity.” There will be a chapter on Chocolat in the Lyneise Williams’s forthcoming book, Black AND Latin: Representations of Black Latin Americans in Paris, 1855-1933 (Ashgate). It will be interesting to see how her study compares with that by Smalls.
Alison Chang explores the ambivalent approach to primitivism, modernism, and nineteenth-century ideas about exoticism by a Norwegian painter in “Staging Ethnicity: Edvard Munch’s Images of Sultan Abdul Karim.” In 1916, Munch produced seven paintings and one lithograph of an African circus performer, whom he paid as a model, servant, and driver. The largest painting was Cleopatra and the Slave (1916). It depicted a clothed Western woman reclining on a bed with a nude African man standing beside her; he was the primitive attendant in an Orientalist-inspired composition. The work was later cut in half, dividing the woman from the man, and those pieces became known as Cleopatra and Standing Naked African. Chang compared the single portrayal of Karim to Munch’s other portraits of the model in modern Western attire, stripped of associations with primitivism. Given that Munch and his Nordic contemporaries likely would have encountered black people only in circuses or zoos that included displays of humans, as well as at the Congo display at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition in Norway, the artist’s depictions of Karim seem restrained. Chang suggests “It is perhaps the staged and performative nature of these cultural displays that perhaps Munch sought to evoke in Cleopatra and the Slave.” She further argues that the background is similar to Munch’s stage designs, which may refer to the “artificiality of interracial encounters in ethnographic exhibitions.”
Stylistically, Chang argues that Munch simultaneously participates in and rejects art-historical tropes in the portrayal of African men. Unlike French Orientalist painters, Munch left the room empty and he depicted background figures wearing loincloths and carrying spears which made them seem more sub-Saharan than North African or Middle Eastern. Such details make the composition appear disjointed, as does Karim (known today only by his stage name), who is uncomfortably rigid, as though a wooden sculptural figure from the Congo. Munch could have seen such works at the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo; Munch’s uncle was one of the founders of the institution. In amalgamating motifs, forms, and ideas from varying non-Western cultures into a single composition, Munch echoed similar approaches by his contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
By the early twentieth century, artists had Orientalized Cleopatra’s appearance and placed her in settings that reflected Pharaonic Egypt. Munch, however, harkened back to earlier portrayals of the Egyptian queen as a fair-skinned European woman. In doing so, Chang believes Munch changed “the scene of one grounded in difference to one focused on the slave’s “otherness” and addressed the taboo of the white female/black male couple. Munch reversed the hierarchy typical of a “blanche/noir” relationship by making the woman dominant and thus undermining viewers’ notions of African male sexuality as bestial. Chang then compares this painting to Munch’s three half-length portraits (1916-1917) in which he transforms Karm from a stiff, generic figure to an individual with clearly rendered features. The works are very much like Munch’s self-portraits of 1915 in which the artist depicts his own three-quarters profile face in a pastiche of varying hues and wearing similar clothing. Chang concludes that “Munch effectively casts Karim as a stand-in for the artist.” The paintings present the African man as a contemporary Westernized figure and also evoke the artist’s inner “primitive” nature, a nature also described by Munch’s critics. Chang effectively argues that Munch emphasized the mutability of identity with such works, using “Karim’s blackness as a vehicle for self-examination during a turning point in his career.”
Wendy Grossman contributed a strong final chapter, “Race and Beauty in Black and White: Robert Demachy and the Aestheticization of Blackness in Pictorialist Photography.” It is well grounded in literature of the Pictorialist movement, race theories, and French cultural studies. Grossman examines the uses of the colors black and white in terms of racial and aesthetic discourses in Demachy’s photograph, Contrasts (A Study in Black and White) (1901/03), as well as several variants of it (there are seven total variants; see fig. 6 for one of them). The image depicts a pre-pubescent model of color and a classical bust of a boy in a literal and figural tête-à- tête. The highly aestheticized gum-bichromate prints are indebted to nineteenth-century tropes of blackness with their binaries of civilization and primitiveness, and European (or more specifically, Greek)-ness and African-ness. However, the apparently mixed-race, androgynous figure challenges those binaries as a complex conceptualization of beauty and artistry.
Grossman notes that there has been little examination of self-consciously artistic Pictorialist photographs featuring people of color; scholarship has focused on aesthetic style and techniques. She broke new ground by offering a nuanced and contextualized in-depth study of a significant work and by establishing the female identity of the model. In a footnote, she explains that she found archival photographs of the sitter at a more mature age in Paris and Chalon-sur-Saône. Grossman acknowledges the research of Demachy scholar Julien Faure-Conorton who recently discovered a partial cast of a full-length marble of an idealized young boy, L’ammostatore (The grape presser) (1818) by Italian sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini.
Demachy was a leading Pictorialist, not only in France, but internationally in the United Kingdom and the United States, known both for his photographs and his voluminous writings about the field. Grossman documents Contrasts’s iconic status with its publication in Alfred Stieglitz’s highly acclaimed journal, Camera Work (January 1904), its appearance in the celebrated Pictorialist photography exhibition at the Albright Knox Gallery in 1910, the fact that it was one of only nine of the 600 photographs from that show that was reproduced in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine in 1911, and its acquisition by the National Museum of American History in 1913.
Grossman argues that the indexicality of photography — and this work in particular as an ostensibly faithful witness to a historical reality — encourages a deeper political meaning than depictions of people of color in painting drawing, or sculpture. She considers Contrasts in relation to other photographs of women of color by such artists as Arthur Da Cunha, Nadar, and Gertrude Käsebier, pointing out that most scholarship about these works (with the exception of work by Deborah Willis and Carla Williams) has disregarded race as a subject meriting examination. It is regrettable that reproductions of referenced works like Nadar’s Portrait d’une Antillaise (Maria) (date not provided) and Demachy’s own Séance (ca. 1912) are missing from this book. Grossman also compares Contrasts, with its pairing of a living black model and an inanimate white form, to similar couplings in Girodet’s Portrait du Jean-Baptiste Belley (1797), F. Holland’s Day’s Ebony and Ivory (ca. 1899)(which could have been a prototype and inspiration for Demachy), and Man Ray’s famous Noire et blanche (1926), which could have been prompted by Demachy’s series.
Grossman’s central tenants are solid. She argues that this is a “composition in which difference is not only encoded and perpetuated but also challenged” (216) and “Demachy’s compositions thus function on formal and conceptual levels both to perpetuate and confound the aesthetic and racial dichotomies they evoke” (222). Less convincing are her assertions that Contrasts “blurs distinctions between photography and painting” and “complicates the photograph’s indexical quality.” Academic artists such as Gérôme strove to make their canvases look photo-realist but that doesn’t mean that they blurred the distinction between the mediums; their works are still oil paintings and fictional constructions just as Pictorialist prints, despite their darkroom manipulation, remain photographs. And the images still depict real people and things; the indexical quality is undisputed. Grossman also says “we are forced to acknowledge the model as a particularized individual,” yet this youth is not particularized. We still do not know her name, her specific cultural heritage, or anything about her. She continues to read as a racial type, lost in a generic “black/négre stereotyped abyss,” to use T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s term. Grossman herself refers to the model in terms of an “Africanist discourse” several times (203, 219, 220, 223), even as she admits that the girl’s ethnic background might be “North African, Caribbean, or other mix of European and African heritage” (220). Curiously, she never construes the sitter as possibly American, which would introduce other possible interpretations in the contexts of slavery, colonialism, and the New Woman.
This compilation is a fascinating one that broadens our understanding of the representations of blacks and blackness in nineteenth-century Europe, but it is a very circumscribed Europe, limited to three countries. The collection is quite Francophilic; five of the eight essays concern the work of French artists. Other represented countries are England and Norway. One might argue that Warburg, as an American, does not belong in a book about “European art,” but he did produce his two extant pieces while abroad. There is no way that such an anthology can be encyclopedic. Nonetheless, I would have liked to have seen representation from other places and other artists, such as Germany (for instance, Carl Blechen, Adolph von Menzel, Karl Wilhelm Gentz), Belgium (James Ensor), the Netherlands (Cornelis Johannes Kees Maks), Scotland (David Wilkie), Ireland (William Mulready), Denmark (Martinus Rørbye), Russia (Pavel Petrovich Svinin), Spain (Mariano Fortuny y Marsal), Austria (Leopold Carl Müller, Ludwig Deutsch, Hans Makart, Rudolph Ernst), Italy (Vincenzo Marinelli, Giacomo Ginotti, Aristide Sartorio), and/or Switzerland (Frank Buchser), etc., and also representation from female artists; surely some European women depicted people of color in the nineteenth century. Six of the eight essays concern painting and illustration; just two are about different mediums, sculpture and photography. The decorative arts would have been very welcome in this volume, as well. Finally, it is lamentable that captions are inconsistent and incomplete. Almost one third (nineteen) or the fifty-six images are not identified by medium, and dimensions of all original works are missing. These, however, are minor quibbles about a valuable volume, chockful of compelling, new research and ideas.
Theresa Leininger-Miller teaches 19th-21st century American and European art at the University of Cincinnati where she is an associate professor of art history. She is author of the book, New Negro Artists: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (Rutgers, 2001). She also has conducted extensive research on daguerreotypist James Presley Ball and is currently writing a book on sculptor Augusta Savage. She has also curated several exhibitions on 19th-20th century illustrated sheet music, including pieces by black composers, American and Canadian.