Jean-Léon Gérôme, Etude d'après un modèle féminin pour "A vendre, esclaves au Caire
© Galerie Jean-François Heim - Bâle

For roughly the past thirty years, the representation of black people has become a topic in the history of art that has been widely explored on both sides of the Atlantic, while research in black studies has grown. A significant portion of this research seeks to show how the world of images played a role in the historical process in which the black slave trade was introduced, a gradual shift away from slavery took place and, lastly, a black identity slowly asserted itself. To date, no exhibition has ever attempted to explore this centuries-old civilisational phenomenon through the abundance of images it has spawned in all different forms of expression. Concentrating on the period from the French Revolution to the start of the twentieth century, the exhibition Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse shows how images of people ‘of colour’ have been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Organised alongside the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, this Musée d’Orsay exhibition takes a look at changes that affected ways of representing black people who lived in Paris, some of whom worked as models for artists and played key roles in the development of modern art. The exhibition highlights the most revealing works by Girodet, Benoist, Guillon-Lethière, Géricault, Delacroix, Chassériau, Cordier, Carpeaux, Manet, Bazille, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse; it incorporates photography, featuring Nadar and Carjat; and it especially sheds light on creations by black artists: those of the Harlem Renaissance like Charles Alston and William H. Johnson, and figures from the post-war generation up to the present day, including Romare Bearden, Ellen Gallagher and Aimé Mpane. The main focus is on the relationship between the artist who paints, sculpts, engraves or photographs their subject, and their model.

By adopting a cross-disciplinary approach covering the history of art, the history of ideas and anthropology, the exhibition addresses aesthetic, political and social issues, as well as the imagination inherent in portraying black people in visual arts. Without breaking up its narrative, the exhibition takes the visitor through three historical focal points: the period of abolition (1794-1848), the period of New Painting (Manet, Bazille, Degas, Cézanne) and the period of the twentieth century’s first avant-gardists. Special attention is given to Olympia and her avatars, as well as Matisse’s discovery of Harlem and his fascination for Creole culture, in response to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (‘The Flowers of Evil’), a book that Matisse illustrated under the German occupation.

Félix Nadar, Maria the Antillean, 1856-1859
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Madeleine, Joseph, Aspasie, Laure, Carmen Lahens and Aïcha Goblet were names among the many black or mixed-race men and women who crossed the paths of artists, painters, sculptors and photographers. But who were they? Who were these figures that are often forgotten in the great story of the avant-gardists? For a long time, just a first name or nickname was enough to best refer to them. But these studio models gradually adopted more active roles in the Parisian art world, as did black personalities in performing arts. From unfamiliarity to familiarity, no other exhibition has ever recounted this long process or attempted to describe a dialogue that has been nonetheless central to the arts.

Théodore Géricault , Study of a Model, after the model Joseph, 1818-1819
© J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

More information

The exhibition Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse is organised by the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery of the University of Columbia, New York, alongside the Mémorial ACTe remembrance centre in Pointe-à-Pitre, with exceptional support from France’s national library Bibliothèque nationale de France. It is on view from 26 March until 21 July 2019 at Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Click here for more information.