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The Black Muses of Paris

2 min read

Black women are more visible than ever in popular culture, but how are they represented in art?  Taking a multi-disciplinary approach that combines the history of art and the history of ideas, the exhibition “Black models – From Géricault to Matisse” ( Musée d’Orsay, Paris – until the 21st of July 2019) explores aesthetic, political, social and racial issues as well as the imagery unveiled by the representation of black figures in visual arts, from the abolition of slavery in France (1794) to the modern day.

From photography to painting and sculpture, as well as film and print correspondence, this exhibit traces how the black figure has been key to the development of modern art over the past 150 years. It primarily focuses on the question of models, and therefore the dialogue between the artist who paints sculpts, engraves or photographs and the model who poses. It also explores the way in which the representation of black subjects in major works by Théodore Géricault, Charles Cordier, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, as well as the photographs of Nadar and Carjat, evolved.

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Designed to provide a long-term perspective, the exhibition 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.

In honour of the black figures represented in modern art, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has also retitled Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800). It will be called Portrait of Madeleine, in reference to the name of the woman pictured in the work.

By focusing on the black people who feature in classical pieces, the exhibition reminds visitors that no aspect of western development occurred without the presence of people of colour.




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