A celebrated exhibition revealing the extensive presence of the Black model in art from 19th century France to modern day opened today at the Musée d’Orsay with an unexpected and exciting update: works featuring anonymous Black models have been renamed to honor their sitters.
The exhibition premiered at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York under the title Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, then opening at the Musée d’Orsay with the title Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. The exhibition is based on Denise Murrell’s 2013 dissertation for Columbia University’s department of art history and archaeology. Murrell served as the sole curator for the Wallach Art Gallery’s original iteration, and the co-curator of the Paris exhibition alongside Cécile Debray and Stéphane Guégan. Its Parisian iteration is temporarily retitling the featured masterpieces to represent the historically erased Black models present in their imagery.
Murrell traces the lineage of the Black female figure in modern art since Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1865) through the 21st century, scrutinizing the shifting modes of art historical representation afforded to Black women, often reduced to anonymous tropes. Murrell focuses specifically on Black women in French artistic representation in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the works of Manet and Matisse.
Murrell says these women’s identities have been shrouded by “unnecessary racial references” such as negress or mulatresse. She and her co-curators chose to unearth these women’s names to bear the titles of the artworks, “which would have been the case if they had been European,” relocating their historic titles to the second line.
“It was art history that left them out. It has contributed to the construction of these figures as racial types as opposed to the individuals they were,” Murrell says.
The most famous work in the exhibition, Manet’s “Olympia,” is often identified as the birth of modern art. In the context of Black models, the work has been renamed “Laure,” to swap the focus of the painting featuring a nude reclining woman being serviced by a maid.
Little is known about Laure, though the iconic image has been appropriated and revisited by artists for over a century. In 1862, Manet wrote a brief description of her in his notebook: “Laure, very beautiful negress, rue Vintimille, 11, 3rd floor.” She also modeled in Manet’s “Children in the Tuileries Gardens”(1862).
Similarly, Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Negress” is retitled as “Portrait of Madeleine.” Of the painting, Murrell says, “For more than 200 years there has never been an investigation to discover who she was — something that was recorded at the time.” She calls this “emblematic” of art history’s knowing erasure of Black models.
The exhibition also displays portraits of Black individuals by Delacroix, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard, and Cézanne, like Jeanne Duval, often called the “Black Venus,” who was a mistress and muse to the poet Baudelaire and was also painted by Manet.
Black models: from Géricault to Matisse, curated by Denise Murrell, Cécile Debray, and Stéphane Guégan, runs at Musée d’Orsay through July 21.
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