A Long Overdue Light on Black Models of Early Modernism

A Long Overdue Light on Black Models of Early Modernism

We still live in an Age of Rediscovery regarding the role of women in art, and revelations regularly reshape the way we view both female creators and subjects. A retrospective of the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim Museum is one recent example of how a show can alter a long-held assumption. In this case the narrative that abstract painting was the early-20th-century invention of a few white male Europeans.

“Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” sows disruption on another more nuanced front. This taut, riveting exhibition — currently on view at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery in the new Lenfest Center for the Arts at Columbia University — revisits mid-19th-century Paris to examine the significance of black female models in paintings from the earliest years of European modernism. It then peripatetically traces such figures through successive generations of artists.

At every point, black models pose, or raise, the question of modernity: what is it, who makes it, who is it for? They starkly silhouette the role of the artist’s model as collaborator, as incisive measures of modernity, mirroring the racial attitudes of both artists and their times.

Paris in the second half of the 19th-century was a city in flux, and also arguably the world’s most integrated. While hardly free of racism, it had its share of prominent black and biracial figures, among them Alexandre Dumas, made rich and famous by his plays and by novels like “The Three Musketeers,” published in 1844. With the abolition of slavery in the French colonies following the Revolution of 1848, the city’s black population began to expand. Newcomers from the French Caribbean often settled in the northern part of the city, with the women often eking out livings as servants, sex workers, street vendors or artists’ models. Black nannies became a status symbol. These women adopted French dress, but kept their bright headwraps, called foulards.

Art in Paris was changing too. A handful of young painters, some of whom also lived in the city’s northern arrondissements, were increasingly focused on depicting people of different professions and classes. These artists, especially Édouard Manet, heard the call to be “painters of modern life,” issued by his friend, the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire, whose longtime companion was Jeanne Duval, a tall, willful biracial former actress.

And the newly invented medium of photography was stirring things up. Sometimes it democratized the tradition of portraiture by making possible small images of celebrities like Dumas, who appears here several times. In other instances, portrait photography turned vicious, facilitating double ethnographic images (frontal and profile), which are precursors of the modern mug shot.

The show’s conceptual starting point is Manet’s great “Olympia,” which the Musée d’Orsay declined to loan. It is reproduced large on a text panel here, reprised in two of Manet’s etchings and there is so much else here you may not miss it. Often characterized as the first work of modernism, “Olympia” depicts a naked white courtesan and her handsomely clothed black maid as near equals, formally and psychologically. It was painted in 1863, while the United States was being torn apart by the Civil War.

“Posing Modernity” has been organized by Denise Murrell, a former chief executive who recently earned a Ph.D. in art history at Columbia University. The idea for the show — and the thesis that preceded it — came to her after sitting through a few too many art history lectures that pored over the white subject of “Olympia,” but barely mentioned its black one. Ms. Murrell sought to discover more about the model for the maid and other women like her, and what they could tell us about modernism.

The exhibition opens with Manet’s 1863 portrait of the model who would pose as the maid; its title provides her name: “La négresse (Portrait of Laure).” In a studio notebook, Manet described Laure as “a very beautiful black woman,” and included her address, a 10-minute walk from his studio.

From this portrait, the first and richest portion of the show bounces energetically backward, forward and sideways among variously modern or reactionary works, whether paintings, photographs or drawings. A black model is portrayed as exotic, bare-breasted and oppressed in both Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1870 “Moorish Bath” and “La toilette,” also 1870, by his student Frédéric Bazille.

But Bazille was an acolyte of Manet, who urged him to stick to modern life. So that year, before going to fight in the Franco-Prussian War, where he would die, Bazille also made a painting and a watercolor of a young black woman arranging or perhaps selling peonies. Ms. Murrell was never able to divine this model’s name, but in the catalog, she argues that Bazille grants her more autonomy than Manet gives Laure in “Olympia”: The Bazille model is seen in clear light, without an employer and not pushed against a dark background. (This point is credible in terms of the treatment of the models, but “Olympia” remains the more radical work of art.)

Opposite Bazille’s painting of the woman with peonies, the same model with the same plaid foulard and coral earring appears in a half-length portrait from around 1867-69 by the American painter Thomas Eakins, another Gérôme student. This time she is naked, which Eakins chastely all but ignores, concentrating on her slightly bowed head and her complex emotional state, which would seem to involve some embarrassment. Looking from Bazille’s relatively upbeat portrait to Eakins’s sadder one, you wonder how a model’s personality figures in an invitation to pose, and the strength of character conveyed by these immigrant women, making their way in a new culture.

There are additional works to be savored here, by Manet, Degas and Baudelaire himself (little sketches of Duval). Don’t miss, in the first gallery, Bazille’s 1870 view of his studio. It shows his visitors — Manet, Renoir, Monet and possibly the critic Zacharie Astruc — and a man playing a piano in the corner. The tall figure of the host has much wobblier strokes than everything else and was painted by Manet (who gets equal billing). Bazille’s admiration for Manet is clear in the flat gray expanse of floor and the pale pink mound of a sofa. Above it hangs “La toilette,” not yet finished.

The remainder of the show fitfully follows the appearances of black women to the present. Lacking the density of the first part, it still rewards.

We encounter the interwar paintings by artists of the Harlem Renaissance like Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Ernest T. Crichlow, Miguel Covarrubias and Laura Wheeler Waring. Here women are depicted as autonomous beings, dressed for and sometimes out in the world. William H. Johnson’s 1939 “Nude (Mahlinda)” presents the section’s one unclothed figure, a dark fleshy woman rendered with generous amounts of paint, a bright blanket and at least one still life. The painting may spoof the convention of the classical nude, but it has its own defiant gorgeousness and seems to celebrate a more usual womanly body type.

The abbreviated figures of Henri Matisse may have been an influence on these artists, hence the inclusion here of two of his paintings from 1916 portraying Aïcha, a former dancer who modeled for several painters and is also seen here in a photo-portrait, and Lorette, one of Matisse’s frequent models in Moroccan dress. A jazz-lover, Matisse visited Harlem during the four trips he made to America, all in the early 1930s.

Two slightly-less-stern-than-usual portraits of the artist by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed many of Harlem’s luminaries, indicate that the Frenchman enjoyed himself, perhaps sensing benefit to his work. That benefit seems visible in the highly economical studies and prints of women’s faces that Matisse made in the 1940s to illustrate selected poems from Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil,” especially those inspired by Jeanne Duval. The painter’s main model for them was Carmen Lahens, a Haitian performer who settled in Nice; several photographs show her posing for the artist. The final Matisse here is his 1951 “Creole Dancer,” an ecstatic papier collé thought to depict the black dancer Katherine Dunham.

Next to it, is a moment of absolute stillness: Romare Bearden’s 1970 masterpiece, “Patchwork Quilt,” with its nude foulard-wearing Nubian, stiff as an Egyptian sculpture and, in this, majestically untouchable. The show concludes with 10 works by 21st-century American, European or African-born Paris-based artists, including Mickalene Thomas, Aimé Mpane, Maud Sulter and Lorraine O’Grady. Many of their efforts are haunted by or comment on “Olympia” or Laure in particular.

Ms. Murrell makes every inclusion in “Posing Modernity” count as art and information. From the Wallach, her show will travel to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, gaining multiple curators and according to a preliminary checklist, at least doubling in size. The second iteration will include “Olympia” and other 19th-century French paintings; much more ephemera and photographs, and only one 21st-century work (Mr. Mpane’s). A checklist is not an exhibition. Even so the streamlined masterpiece-light Wallach version may actually prove better — clearer, more fleet and certainly more up to date.

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