Black Images in European Art
Europeans have portrayed Africans and persons of African descent in their art since ancient times. Their depictions range from crude and stereotypical to sensitive and respectful, depending on the era during which the works were created, the circumstances that prevailed at the time the artist created each work, and the personal opinions of the artist regarding black people and their place in the world. Images of blacks in paintings and sculpture may be found in many of Paris’s finest museums if one only takes the time to look for them.
At the Louvre, the number of paintings that portray blacks is remarkable. Over 20 of them can be discovered during the Black Images in European Art tour organized by Discover Paris, beginning with depictions of the three wise men in numerous paintings called The Adoration of the Magi. It is fascinating to view the different ways in which the black King is portrayed from one painting to another. He often occupies a prominent position, and his coloring and facial features vary.
Black men and women are frequently portrayed in scenes depicting or evoking Ancient Greece and “The Orient,” the latter of which for the French means North Africa and Egypt, as opposed to the Far East. Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Women of Algiers in their Apartment are but two examples.
The most extraordinary portrayal of a black woman in a painting at the Louvre is Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. A portrait of a servant brought to France by the artist’s brother-in-law, it was exhibited at the Salon of 1800. It captures quiet dignity and perhaps even sadness, in the face of the subject.
Across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is home to many magnificent works that portray blacks. My two favorites are L’Afrique by Eugène Delaplanche, a cast-iron sculpture that sits on the esplanade outside the museum, and Le Nègre de Soudan by Charles Cordier, a marble and onyx bust that sits in the nave on the ground floor inside the museum.
The woman that Delaplanche created to represent Mother Africa is nothing less than regal. Tall and proud she sits, and her gaze is steady and piercing. She was once gilded—we can only imagine the added splendor that this would have given to the sculpture!
Charles Cordier created Le Nègre de Soudan (and the accompanying bust of a female figure called La Capresse) at a time when Europeans had a keen interest in ethnology, the study of the division of mankind into races, origins, and characteristics. Cordier wanted to contribute to ethnology through his art. He was the only 19th century French sculptor to devote time and talent to representing human diversity. None of his works, including Le Nègre de Soudan and La Capresse, reveal a trace of caricature.
Monique Y. Wells