How Did Modern Art Portray Black Models?

December 14, 2018

The current exhibition at the Wallach Art Gallery brings to light much of what art history has ignored. It explores how the black figure has been key to the development of modern art over the past 150 years. Starting from the earliest years of European modernism, it traces such figures through successive generations of artists, bringing together paintings, sculptures and photographs, highlighting the little-known, multiracial aspect of each artist’s milieu.

The show was sparked by Manet's Olympia from 1863, depicting a naked white courtesan and her handsomely clothed black maid as near equals, formally and psychologically. As the exhibition curator, Denise Murrell, explains, the black model beside Olympia has been largely overlooked by art historians.

The exposition is highlighted through archival photographs, correspondence and films.

Édouard Manet - Lady with a Fan, 1862
Édouard Manet - Lady with a Fan, 1862. Oil on canvas; 89.5 x 113 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Works on View

The exposition in New York, focusing specifically on the black female figure, will begin with Edouard Manet’s 1860s portrayals of Laure, the model who posed as the maid in Olympia, while the exposition in Paris will offer a broader and expanded treatment of the black figure, beginning with portraits by Marie-Guillemine Benoist and Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault at the start of the 19th century. Manet's Olympia, which couldn't be loaned, will be on view at the exposition in Paris.

Some of the works which will be on view in both expositions are paintings by Impressionists such as Manet, Frédéric Bazille, and Edgar Degas, photographs by Nadar, sculptures by Charles Henri Joseph Cordier and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, paintings, drawings and prints of Henri Matisse, as well as the portraiture of diverse artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Charles Alston and William H. Johnson.

Charles Alston - Girl In a Red Dress, 1934, Henri Matisse - Dame à la robe blanche [Woman in White], 1946
Left: Charles Alston - Girl In a Red Dress, 1934. Oil on canvas; 28 x 22 inches. Collection Dr. Harmon and Mrs. Harriet Kelley / Right: Henri Matisse - Dame à la robe blanche [Woman in White], 1946, Oil on canvas; 96.5 x 60.3 cm. Des Moines Art Center, Acc. No. 1959.40. Courtesy The Matisse Foundation. © 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society

The History of Art and the History of Ideas

Through a multidisciplinary approach, the showcase will explore aesthetic, political, social and racial issues as well as the realm of the imagination that could be seen in the representation of black figures in visual arts from the French and American abolition eras to the present day. All of these works mirror the racial attitudes of both artists and their times.

The curator attempted to give a number of different narratives that can be discussed around the black figure, especially in broader, social roles. Through these works, one could see the evolution of black women within artwork from crass caricatures to figures in control of their lives and sexuality.

Frédéric Bazille - Young Woman with Peonies, 1870
Frédéric Bazille - Young Woman with Peonies, 1870. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy the National Gallery, Washington, DC

Posing Modernity at Wallach Art Gallery

The exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today will be on view at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York until February 10th, 2019. After that, the exhibition will be expanded at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris from March 26th to July 14th, 2019.

The Wallach Art Gallery exposition will be curated by Denise Murrell, Ph.D., Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, while the Musée d'Orsay exposition will be curated by Cécile Debray, Director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, Stéphane Guégan, scientific advisor to the President of the Musées d’Orsay and Orangerie, Denise Murrell, Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, Isolde Pludermacher and Edouard Papet, curators at the Musée d’Orsay.

The exhibition is based on Denise Murrell’s 2013 dissertation for Columbia University’s department of art history and archaeology, as is the forthcoming Posing Modernity catalog, to be co-published by Yale University Press.

Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today

Featured image: Frédéric Bazille - Young Woman with Peonies (detail), 1870. All images courtesy of Wallach Art Gallery.

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