By Val Castronovo
“Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” is a major exhibit, co-organized by Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in West Harlem and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It has its origins in a 2013 doctoral dissertation by Columbia grad student Denise Murrell, now a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the gallery and the exhibit’s curator.
Murrell had the idea to trace depictions of the black female figure in art history, inspired by the overlooked black maid in Édouard Manet’s iconic and, by the standards of the time, quite scandalous “Olympia” (1863), a picture of a reclining white courtesan in slippers and jewels sans her clothes.
“It’s considered to be the foundational painting of modern art. It flashes up on the screen in courses, and you’re sitting there listening, taking notes, and the entire narrative is about the reclining, nude white woman, but I’m always seeing two women in this painting, who are presented in a manner that suggests they should both be brought to our attention,” Murrell said in an interview. “It was just one of my early curiosities for research purposes to look into what else could be said about the black model who posed with Olympia.”
And to examine her legacy — the re-imagining, deconstructing and unpacking of the painting, “the way the Olympia maid figure was a major project of artists, including those of our current generation.”
Works by Manet (1832-83) and his avant-garde circle kick off the show, which includes loans of more than 100 paintings, sculptures, photos, prints and book illustrations. The maid avec bouquet in “Olympia” was a woman named Laure, who the artist painted three times in one year (the original “Olympia” will be featured in an expanded presentation next spring at the Musée d’Orsay).
In each painting, Laure assumes a different role: brothel worker (“Olympia”), nanny (“Children in the Tuileries Gardens”), and, in the expressive portrait at the exhibit’s entrance (“La négresse”), not a servant but “a young woman who might be working in a shop or be an actress. You just see all of these social roles that black women played in 19th century Paris,” the curator said.
In contrast to academic artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme, who portrayed black women as exotic and bare-breasted, Manet painted these women as he saw them—free blacks living in the northern neighborhoods of Paris in the aftermath of the second French abolition of territorial slavery in 1848. Their presence was small, but they were an undeniable part of the social fabric. They were servants, dancers, actresses, equestrians, circus stars, matrons and working-class stiffs. Some were part of the painter’s immediate social and artistic milieu.
As Murrell said, “The changing mode of representing the black female figure is part of what makes modern art modern. Because in the traditions of Orientalism and Romanticism, the black female figure was always exoticized, [put] in a remote locale, with all this exotic, romantic attire. What Manet and the painters of modern life did was re-situate that figure in the heart of everyday 1860s Paris.”
Frédéric Bazille (1841-70) was a fan of Manet and changed his style in response to the master’s depictions of modern life. The gorgeous works on display illustrate his transition from the academic style of painting popular at the Salon de Paris to the modernist painting of everyday scenes championed by his hero.
On the one hand, there’s “La toilette” (1869-70), with the requisite Orientalist, bare-breasted black woman in a servile position. “She’s kneeling, she’s working, she’s helping the woman dress,” Murrell said. “But then that painting is rejected by the salon, and Bazille decides to become an acolyte of Manet.”
He takes the same black model, whose name is not known, and gives her a modern spin in the extravagant “Young Woman with Peonies” (1870), on display. “She’s not necessarily a servant. I read her to be a flower vendor. That’s another step up in the social hierarchy, of making your way [and having] an economic toehold in the society,” the curator said. “She’s in French attire, she’s not bare-breasted, and she’s portrayed in a very sympathetic way. There’s a sense of an individual personality.”
The work is a symbolic tribute to Manet, of course: the subject is offering peonies, which the artist famously loved. He painted them and cultivated them at his country house.
There is a riveting cache of works by Henri Matisse (1869-54) here. Murrell serendipitously discovered that the artist visited New York four times in the 1930s. “We learn from his letters…that he was in the daytime visiting The Met and being hosted by the Rockefellers, but at night he is visiting jazz clubs and attending black theater,” she said. He engages with artists and writers in the city and sees the modernist works of the Harlem Renaissance, which had a profound influence on his aesthetic.
Cumulatively, the black model moves “from object to subject over the course of the 160 years covered by the show,” Murrell said. There are now portrayals “based on how black women are seeing themselves and their history. But we still have too few contemporary artists of color on view.”