PARIS — At the Louvre, the striking painting is identified simply as “Portrait of a black woman.”
The work is widely considered allegorical — the subject’s bare breast and classical dress, in the colors of the French flag, alluding to the French Republic and the figure of Liberty. The painting was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1800, so artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist could have been referring to the just-finished French Revolution or Napoleon Bonaparte’s moves to reinstate slavery — or both.
But the painting hangs under a new title in a groundbreaking show at the Musée d’Orsay directly across the Seine River: “Portrait of Madeleine.” For the first time since the early 19th century, Benoist’s sitter has her own story. As viewers learn, the woman gazing back at them was an emancipated slave from Guadeloupe and a domestic servant who worked in the home of the artist’s brother-in-law.
This is the project of “The Black Model: From Géricault to Matisse,” a major exhibit that opened at the Orsay on Tuesday. The show attempts to restore the identities and perspectives of black figures who were depicted on canvas but largely written out of history.
The exhibit expands on an earlier version that debuted at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery last fall, inspired by the research of American art historian Denise Murrell. But it lands with different impact in France, where the state is officially blind to race, both as statistical category and as lived experience.
“We are tackling political questions, social questions,” said Musée d’Orsay director Laurence des Cars. “We are tackling a very sensitive subject.”
The show notably addresses France’s role in the slave trade and the manifestation of the slavery debate in the arts of the period. Slavery was abolished in France during the French Revolution in 1794, briefly reestablished under Napoleon Bonaparte, and outlawed again during the revolution of 1848.
Although there is an abolition memorial in Nantes, a former slave trade hub in western France, there is no major museum of slavery in metropolitan France. To date, the country’s only significant attempt to grapple with its slave-trading past is located in Pointe-à-Pitre — 4,200 miles away, in the French territory of Guadeloupe. A smaller, third iteration of the show will travel to Pointe-à-Pitre after Paris, in tandem with President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to returning stolen artworks to former colonial territories.
“It’s like opening a door to a subject that has not been tackled by French institutions, that is not in cultural and intellectual traditions,” des Cars said.
She noted that the show conveys something different when hosted at a fine arts museum like the Orsay than if it had been staged, for example, at the Quai Branly, a nearby space specifically devoted to the arts of Africa and Oceania. “You make a statement,” des Cars said.
Using signature pieces from the Orsay collection that rarely travel, “The Black Model” also seeks to highlight household names from the French past who were of mixed racial heritage, such as the beloved writer Alexandre Dumas, whose paternal grandmother was a Haitian slave.
“Every French person knows and loves Dumas père and reads ‘Three Musketeers,’ but most French people don’t understand him to be a person of color,” said Murrell, the American art historian. “Is there a city in France that doesn’t have a statue of one of the Dumas somewhere?”
Given that Dumas wrote about race during his lifetime, Murrell said, the show was a means of “recuperating an aspect of his life and his thinking that was perhaps marginalized over time in history.”
Rokhaya Diallo, a host of BET-France and an activist for racial equality, pointed to an “absence of black women in the collective imagination of French literature, cinema and the arts.”
That marginalization was evident in the music video Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed at the Louvre last year, using the museum’s masterpieces as a backdrop. Benoist’s “Portrait of a black woman” appears briefly at the end.
Putting black subjects in the foreground is a key objective of the “The Black Model.”
The centerpiece of the exposition is Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” a world-famous painting from the Orsay’s collection that depicts a nude woman on a divan whose gaze accosts the viewer and scandalized the 1865 Salon. In this exhibit, the painting is also identified as “Laure,” putting the focus on the servant who attends the woman. In some respects, “The Black Model” is Laure’s show, and it features a number of subsequent studies that her figure inspired.
To des Cars, a seminal achievement of the show is finding the names of the other, lesser-known black subjects never previously identified. As she put it: “Once you reach that point, you cannot go back.”
A spokeswoman for the Louvre could not confirm that Benoist’s “Portrait of a black woman” would be officially renamed “Portrait of Madeleine” when it returns home across the Seine. But it might be, she said. “We totally support the project.”