In 1800, Marie-Guillemine Benoist painted Portrait of a Black Woman. Her model elegantly strikes a pose, dressed in silky fabrics, delicately hiding her breast and fixing the viewer with a determined and melancholy expression. Far from the common racism and the exotic fantasies of the time, the work reveals itself as a feminist and an anti-slavery manifesto.
It is one of the centrepieces of an exhibition staged at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris on the representation of black models. This exhibition explores aesthetic, political, social and racial issues as well as the representation of black figures in visual arts, from the abolition of slavery in France (1794) to the modern day.
Organised with The Wallach Art Gallery of New York, the works of Matisse, Girodet, Gericault Delacroix, Cordier, photographs of Nadar and Carjat all celebrate Black identity.
The show looks more particularly at three key periods: the era of abolition (1794-1848), the new painting era up to the Matisse’s discovery of the Harlem Renaissance and the early 20th century avant-garde movement and the successive generations of post-war and contemporary artists.