This volume is devoted to images of blacks in Western art from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, approximately one hundred fifty years of continuity and radical change in ideas about both blacks and art. It begins in the period of the Enlightenment, that supremely optimistic and self-confident expression of European civilization, and of the American Revolution, with its declaration of “self-evident truths” that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The volume ends at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, which brought a crisis in Western culture to a head, opening to question all the values on which a century of material progress had been based. In the history of the visual arts, the period covered is that between the creation of a new (neoclassical) style, dedicated to supposedly universal and eternal verities, and the final rupture with the Western classical tradition by expressionists, cubists, and nonrepresentational artists immediately before World War I. So far as the history of blacks is concerned, the volume takes as its starting point the moment when the slave trade, which had been increasing for more than two centuries without any check, began to arouse widespread concern on both sides of the Atlantic. It ends when slavery had been abolished by all the Western powers, but the European colonization of Africa had reached its greatest extent and racial discrimination was practiced throughout the West —though not without growing opposition from blacks themselves. The images illustrated and discussed are no mere historical documents. They have a continuing relevance as the products of a white society whose opinions and acts have blighted and continue to blight the lives of millions of human beings.
Throughout this century and a half, Western attitudes to blacks were conditioned by racial theories formulated at its beginning and based on a bland assumption of white superiority—in intellect, morality, and physical beauty. With a mania for categorization and an urge to impose order on the world, naturalists turned their attention from flora and fauna to the human race and its diversities in skin color, types of hair, and physiognomy. In these three respects they found Africans and Europeans at the furthest remove from one another and placed them at either end of a scale determined by exclusively visual and very largely aesthetic criteria. This might have remained little more than a basis for taxonomy, even though it usually took Europeans as the norm and the inhabitants of other continents as variants resulting from degeneration under different climatic conditions. At the same time, however, the nascent campaign for the abolition of the slave trade led to the identification of blacks as slaves, at the furthest remove from whites on the social scale. The two words became synonymous, despite the classical etymology of the former (a Slav from eastern Europe), and the notion survives to the present day in such a phrase as “working like a black.” For the mere fact that so many Africans, though physically strong, had been bought, transported across the Atlantic, and forced to work for no more than a few whites was cited as an instance of their mental inferiority by many Europeans, including Voltaire, who deplored all forms of slavery.
Racial theories were not accepted unquestioningly at this period by all whites. Many Christians dismissed them as impious even though they believed that the one true religion had been revealed to whites, who had a duty to pass it on to less favored people. The pioneer German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who invented the term Caucasian (for whites), insisted that his human taxonomy had no implications of cerebral diversity. He compiled a list of Africans who had distinguished themselves intellectually—limiting it, however, to those assimilated in European culture. Germany was not directly engaged in the slave trade, but the views of no more than a minority were summed up by the Prussian Wilhelm von Humboldt in the draft of a treatise on language he wrote in the 1820s:
Different as men may be in size and color, bodily form, and facial features, their mental qualities are the same. Assertions to the contrary are refuted by abundant evidence. Were it not for the greed to profit from the traffic in Negro slaves, or for ludicrous pride of color, it would never have been seriously claimed that it was otherwise.
The abolition of slavery was not, however, to undermine the faith of whites in their own superiority—rather, the reverse, as it was seen as one of their achievements.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the implications latent in descriptions of ethnic diversity were made the controlling factor of ideological racism, with its doctrines of purity of blood and historically determined “Aryan” supremacy. Darwinian theories of the descent of man from the animal world incorporated a static racial hierarchy in the dynamic evolutionary system—progress along a single-line railroad track with Europeans always in the first coach. Social Darwinism was increasingly invoked in attempts to justify the conquest of Africa and discrimination against blacks in Europe and America—the victory of “favoured races in the struggle for life.” There was, again, opposition from some whites who, nevertheless, tended to hold themselves aloof from the majority of their fellowmen of whatever color. When André Gide journeyed up the Congo in 1925 (with volumes of Bossuet and Moliére for reading matter) and remarked in his Voyage au Congo (1927), “Moins le blanc est intelligent, plus le noir lui paraît bête,” he was not only protesting against the attitude of colonial officials but congratulating himself. (If the adverbs moins and plus are reversed, the black becomes only slightly less bête.) Tacit assumptions of white superiority, backed up by educational advantages, technology, and wealth, remain to the present day as great a barrier to worldwide understanding and cooperation as the now generally discredited theories of biological racial diversity determining cerebral capacity.
The relationship between statements about and depictions of blacks is, however, more complex than it may at first sight appear. There is a striking difference between blacks in literature and art. No painters succeeded in representing the sublime dignity of Shakespeare’s Othello: the best they could do was to portray actors in the part. None so much as attempted to portray in a portrait the heroic stature of Toussaint-Louverture as expressed in Words-worths famous sonnet. Such likenesses as there are, though imaginative, tell nothing to those unaware of his achievements and fate. Victor Hugos Bug-Jargal appears to have inspired but a few artistically negligible prints. François Gérard could no more than suggest the tragic plight of the heroine of Mme. de Duras’s novel Ourika, even to its readers. The images that come closest to prototypes in fiction are Uncle Tom and Topsy, but, harking back to earlier stereotypes, they reveal less of the author’s good intentions than the ways they were interpreted or misinterpreted. Artists can represent only what they see and feel, and illustrations no more than give support to the writings of others—whether theoretical, historical, or fictional. For although art is a means of communication, it differs from language in its potentialities and limitations, also in the ways in which it can be understood. Responses to images of blacks are strongly conditioned by preconceptions not necessarily shared by their artists, especially traditional notions of blackness, which could be evaded only in literature (as in Wordsworth’s sonnet).
Sometimes the verbal comments and pictorial or sculptural works of a single artist seem to contradict one another. An artist’s images of blacks in different contexts may also be at variance. When engaged in painting, artists were bound to concentrate on what they were doing: applying pigments to a support and checking the result against what they perceived physically or imagined.
Much the same can be said of sculptors modeling or carving three-dimensional forms. The prime aim of artists was to create images which corresponded with their perceptions and would be recognizable to the public for whom they worked. To achieve this, however, they had to adopt traditional techniques of representation and adapt them to their purposes. No artists were able to depict what they saw or felt without some, perhaps unconscious, reliance on schemata. Hence the persistence, particularly evident in images of blacks, of stereotypes as aids to the practice of drawing, painting, or modeling but often as the equivalent of verbal clichés mindlessly repeating what had previously been expressed.
The term image can be applied to any type of artificial representation of a person or an object, and also to a mental picture or impression. In the works of art with which we are mainly concerned, these two meanings coalesce, for in them visual appearances were necessarily refracted through the minds of artists. They are distinct from caricatures, which are by definition exaggerations and thus largely products of the imagination, and on the other hand from illustrations, which purport to be transparently objective. The former include the clearest, perhaps the only unambiguous, expressions of racial prejudice. Illustrations, ranging from diagrams in ethnographic manuals to records of life in Africa, are paradoxically equivocal—or would be if their meanings were not spelled out in the texts they support. For the more scientifically accurate they are, the more they are open to interpretations determined by their subjects and the less they nowadays seem to support the notions they were intended to illustrate. The artists who drew them were gradually superseded by photographers responsible for no more than the selection of a subject and angle of vision, sometimes only for the timing of an exposure. Although such illustrations are sometimes of great documentary interest, their relationship to Western art is little closer than that of plaster life casts or decapitated heads preserved in spirits in ethnological museums.
Visual images are always part of a cultures structure, not simply expressions of its religious beliefs, historical myths, moral codes, aesthetic preferences, internal social system, and relationship with outsiders. Those of blacks are exemplary. No paintings or sculptures could more clearly demonstrate the role of the arts in maintaining an established order with its ranks, marginalizations, and exclusions. For art, especially as the word was understood in the years under present discussion, is a socially constructed category. (It was precisely against this concept that the Dadaists rebelled at the end of the period.) Artists could make a living only by supporting the ideologies which, on account of their education or indoctrination, they shared with their patrons, even if they were separated by class or wealth.
This definition of art embraced only sculpture, paintings, and the prints that were derived from them (usually intended to be framed and hung). Their media were part of their message, and so too were size and location. Bronze and marble, traditionally regarded as noble materials, were used more extensively than ever before for monumental sculptures, the most obvious expressions of the socially controlling role of art, in this period erected usually at the expense of groups of subscribers in their environment. Only one public monument was dedicated to a black, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, and it was commissioned by his fellow African Americans. Blacks sometimes appear on plinths supporting statues of whites. When elevated to the top they remain subsidiary figures in commemorations of the abolition of slavery, which were also reminders of the gratitude they supposedly owed to their emancipators. An African woman is exceptionally given equality with representatives of the other continents crowning Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Fontaine de l’Observatoire in Paris, but a broken chain on her ankle recalls that she had been a slave. Large-scale paintings in public buildings also emphasize the place assigned to blacks in the Western social structure. They are shown as supplicating slaves (on a ceiling in the Louvre), grateful freedmen (in the British House of Lords), or as Africans enjoying the benefits of colonial rule. In churches they appear most often and significantly in paintings of the eunuch baptized by Philip the Deacon, freed from paganism, and received into Western culture. This paradigmatic image of evangelization had been popular in former times and returned to Western art with the revival of Catholic missionary endeavor which coincided with the growth of European colonies in Africa. The subjects for these paintings, as for monumental sculptures, were determined by the people who paid for them. But otherwise the influence of patrons was restrictive rather than prescriptive.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, few large pictures had been painted and virtually no statues carved without commissions and, usually, advance payments to cover the cost of materials. Only with the development of the Romantic idea of artistic independence did painters who had the necessary financial means begin to work on the grand scale on their own initiative, though sculptors rarely risked going beyond the production of plaster models. Artists were not only enabled but, for the first time, required to express sincerely their own views of a subject. The freedom gained from the interference of patrons was, however, no more than relative: their demands now had to be predicted. In France the practice of commissioning large-scale subject pictures for the Crown, under the ancien régime and empire, gave way to a system of indirect patronage during the Restoration period. After the foundation of the Musée du Luxembourg as a gallery of contemporary French art in 1818, paintings and sculptures were bought for it from among those exhibited at the Salons. There can be little doubt that Géricault anticipated that The Raft of the Medusa would be hung there (though it was not to be acquired by the state until after his death). Auguste-François Biard may have had the same hope when he exhibited a large picture of a slave sale on the American coast in the Salon of 1835, but if so he was disappointed. While slavery remained legal in French territory, no such direct criticism of the system was acceptable. He had, however, made his mark as a painter of slaves and was given the commission for a huge picture commemorating the emancipation decree of 1848, to be hung in the historical museum at Versailles.
Other European countries followed the French example of buying contemporary art for museums, which were conceived as institutions for the improvement of public taste and morals. The production of works which, on account of their size or subject matter, could have no other probable destination was thus stimulated—with results that were not always very happy. The vast majority of works of art were, nevertheless, relatively small and intended for private houses. Members of the expanding bourgeoisie bought them partly, no doubt, as status symbols. Superior culture as well as wealth could hardly be more effectively manifested than by the display of original paintings valued for their artistic merits—historical or genre scenes, landscapes, and so on, with a necessarily widening range of content to satisfy demands for uniqueness and novelty. In many there are images of blacks. Indeed, the quantity surviving from the century and a half covered by the present volume far exceeds that from any previous period of equivalent length. Still more are recorded in exhibition catalogues and other contemporary documents. And, as a result of the unprecedented amount of space given to art criticism in the daily press as well as specialized periodicals—testifying to the enlarged public for the arts—more is known of the ways in which they were received. They remained, nevertheless, a minority, sometimes attracting attention for this reason. The proportions cannot be quantified, but some impression of it can be derived from catalogues of exhibitions which were the main marketplaces for works of art. In the Paris Salons, exhibits which may have included blacks, to judge from their titles, account for no more than 6 out of 2,138 in 1831, some 90 out of 4,097 in 1861, some 20 out of 3,660 in 1891.
The general increase in artistic production to supply a constantly expanding market is evident on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, however, there were few museums acquiring paintings and sculptures before the end of the nineteenth century. Private individuals were virtually the only purchasers, and artists were obliged to respect their views on the meaning and purpose of art. Although many of the most notable were trained in Europe, and all indebted to European traditions, they developed a distinctly and sometimes self-consciously national style. There was a marked preference for celebrations of the American natural and social scene, rendered with verisimilitude, pictures that told the truth—if not the whole truth—and expressed the ideals of the Republic. Demands for naturalism put a premium on works focused on specific instances rather than abstract ideas. This is nowhere more clearly evident than in images of blacks. In the United States, where blacks constituted an important part of the population, their presence in works of art could hardly fail to allude to the realities of life—to the problem of slavery before emancipation and of racial discrimination afterward. Artists recorded the place assigned to blacks in or just outside the social structure, but not always without questioning its equity. Several of the most notable expressed hopes for their freedom and equality. And by concentrating on individuality, they differed from Europeans, who depicted slavery—rather than slaves—sometimes as the antonym of liberty, since neither term can be defined without reference to the other, an extreme state of the human condition and thus a subject for paintings and sculpture revealing an artists powers of imagination and expression. The differences between American and European images are mutually illuminating. The former are seldom of suffering blacks exposing a flaw in American democracy which Europeans were eager to emphasize; the latter are still more rarely portrayals of individuals who had established the right to equality with whites which Europeans were reluctant to acknowledge.
But there is also a difference between European and American definitions of a black. In the United States this word or Negro—not to mention intentionally abusive epithets—came to be applied to anyone with some African and thus slave ancestry. It has been said that the only definition is: someone who would have been obliged to travel “Jim Crow” on a South Carolina train. For in this sense blacks constituted a social category or caste, especially in the eyes of immigrants who came from various parts of Europe with different languages, customs, and religious beliefs and who were united by little more than the color of their skins—the mere fact that they were not black. And the hostility of indigent whites was exacerbated by the rise in material prosperity of free blacks, who often had some European ancestry. In Europe, distinctions were drawn between blacks, people of mixed blood, and whites, in ascending hierarchical order. But despite revulsion from so-called miscegenation—strongly evident in comments on Othello—and the racist theory formulated by Arthur de Gobineau, attitudes in life were determined less by knowledge of genealogy than by appearances—a horror of blackness. The African ancestry of which Aleksandr Pushkin in Russia and Alexandre Dumas in France boasted was no bar to their social acceptance.
Europeans may be surprised to find the portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by Thomas Eakins reproduced in a book on the image of the black. Tanner was known rather than seen to be an octoroon and as such persecuted by a gang of whites when he was an art student in Philadelphia. His paintings of blacks were reviewed condescendingly by art critics, and he chose to spend most of his career in France, where racial prejudice was turned mainly against Jews. The portrait is highly significant in that it shows the true appearance of a man termed a black despite his fair complexion. That it carries conviction—unlike the several imaginary images of tragic female octoroons—is due to the development of Tanner’s introspective character and the ability of Eakins to record its outward expression. It takes two to make a portrait, as well as an argument.
Artistic quality, though often overlooked in iconographical studies, can validate an image, becoming part of, indeed indissoluble from, its meaning. Want of skill often suggests that a painting was merely good enough for its subject—as in innumerable stereotyped images of blacks as humbly kneeling slaves, deferential servants, grinning banjo strummers, or dancing savages. Heightened visual sensitivity and technical proficiency were necessary to give life to a work of art so that it arrests the eye and can also engage the mind and emotions. Pictorial accomplishment enabled Girodet to immortalize Jean-Baptiste Belley in a painting which has greater prominence among images of blacks—and the history of Western art in general—than the feeble portrayals of his far more important contemporary Toussaint-Louverture. Its distinction as a work of art distinguishes the subject.
In the period covered by this volume, many of the most gifted artists drew or painted blacks at some point (usually early) in their careers. The list includes painters of such diverse tendencies as Géricault, Delacroix, Ingres, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, and Matisse, to mention only the more famous among the French. They were not necessarily less racially prejudiced than other artists. None, with the exception of Géricault, made a significant departure from iconographical prototypes. In Manet’s Olympia, painted with what seemed shocking realism, a black is cast in the all-too-conventional role of an attendant who presents a pictorial contrast with a white woman. Images by these celebrated artists are, nonetheless, of crucial importance. Like those by such earlier masters as Dürer, Bosch, Paolo Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez, Watteau, or Tiepolo, they are by painters whose work is prominent in the art historical record, copied by students, displayed in art galleries, reproduced in books—exhibits in the Musée imaginaire. The same can be said of, for instance, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Blake, and Turner in England; Overbeck, Menzel, Corinth, and Kirchner among Germans; Eakins and Homer in the United States. Their images of blacks have a kind of authority derived from their more numerous and more widely known depictions of other subjects as well as the artistic abilities they display.
Images discussed in this volume have been selected from the vast range of the available material to indicate the various contexts in which they appear and to investigate the meanings they originally carried. The structure is thematic, divided into two parts both covering the same period. The first is devoted to images directly referring to slavery and its abolition in the Americas and Africa. The second part of the volume, illustrating the ways in which artists saw and imagined blacks in other contexts, takes account of studies of models, depictions of life in Africa, genre scenes, historical compositions, and unbridled fantasies. There are both iconographical and stylistic similarities between the images in the two parts. All were conditioned by the demands and especially the prohibitions of the societies in which they were produced—with significant differences in continental Europe, Britain, and the United States. But whereas those in the first part, with the exception of a few that are neutral on the question of slavery, have initially a force of moral protest but end as statements of established attitudes, those in the second begin with objective likenesses of individuals but become, increasingly, vehicles for the expression of their artists’ technical skills and inner feelings.
The earliest explicit antislavery images are engravings in books by French philosophes published in the 1770s, visual counterparts to the literary refinement of the works they illustrate. One shows black and white children as equals in nature, a theme that was to recur in French art. These writers were, however, more concerned with the general question of human liberty than with the enslavement of Africans, which they regarded as the most obvious instance of its infringement. The abolitionist movement had one of its roots in the secular thought of the Enlightenment—the urge to reexamine all received ideas and impose a rational order on the world, which also encouraged the formulation of racial theories. It had another origin in the awakening of Christian, mainly Protestant, consciences to the sinfulness of buying and selling human beings. Quakers in America made the first practical moves for the abolition of slavery. They were, however, indifferent if not hostile to the visual arts. Not until the Quaker-led but interdenominational Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in London in 1787 was need felt for images to win converts to the cause. And they differ strikingly from those published in France. An emblem devised as the seal of the society showed, as its committee determined, a slave kneeling in a “supplicating posture” with the words: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” It is the archetype of the docile black appealing for the help of whites and has a progeny extending to the end of the nineteenth century. When reproduced on the title page of a book or in a delicate Wedgwood ceramic cameo worn as a brooch, its inscription acquired a curious ambiguity to which its success may be partly due. For the rhetorical question might seem to be asked either by the slave or by whites advertising their membership in a philanthropic elite. Despite the good intentions of its originators, it had the effect of depersonalizing and degrading blacks—a process taken further in the second of the abolitionists’ images, the diagram of a ship printed to show the appalling conditions in which Africans were transported across the Atlantic. So potent were these images that they reduced the possibilities of representing blacks in the former roles of saint or devil, proud Magus, regal personification of Africa, or even richly dressed and petted page boy.
The first attempt to express abolitionist protest in works of art was made by the English artist George Morland in two paintings which were—as probably intended—diffused in reproductive engravings. Both were inspired by a contemporary poem and appealed to sensibility, one showing the operation of the slave trade on the African coast, with emphasis on the brutality of whites, the other illustrating the natural benevolence of Africans who are depicted helping the European survivors from a shipwreck. The title of the former, Execrable Human Trajfick, explained its point of view, separating it from merely touchingly anecdotal genre paintings to which it was nevertheless assimilated by its style and subtitle, The Affectionate Slaves. This picture of victimized blacks implicitly appealing for the protection of benevolent whites had far greater influence than its companion piece. The harsher realities of slavery are, however, veiled as they nearly always would be in paintings intended to be hung in private houses. The susceptibilities of the public determined that they could be recorded only on paper. Some English printmakers illustrated reports of the brutality with which slaves were treated by their owners, but invariably caricatured both with a kind of sadistic glee. William Blake was exceptional in endowing tortured blacks with the fortitude of Christian martyrs and thereby elevating them to a level of heroic suffering from which they were otherwise barred.
The identification of blacks as slaves excluded them from the ranks of heroes in art. They could acquire heroic status only when they rebelled. The man calling down the wrath of heaven on a slave ship in Henry Fuseli’s The Negro Revenged, though ostensibly illustrating an abolitionist poem by the gentle William Cowper, may perhaps have been painted with recent events on Saint-Domingue in mind. But the achievement of slaves in freeing themselves was regarded with mixed feelings. It obliged the French Republic to promulgate a decree of emancipation, a notable act of the Revolutionary government and one that prompted the publication of celebratory prints including a copy of Morland’s Execrable Human Traffick, but no officially commissioned work of art. Engravings in an English book illustrated the revenge taken by blacks on the French on Saint-Domingue but seem to have been inspired mainly by Francophobia. Henry Christophe, emperor of Haiti, was later depicted by an English artist as the equal of a Western monarch but seems to have commissioned this portrait himself.
In The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault made a claim for the human dignity of blacks by giving the key place in the composition to the signaling figure at the apex of the pyramid of misery. Conceived in the grand tradition of history painting, this work elevated an incident from modern life to a heroic level. Before embarking on it, he appears to have had a project for a picture of the slave trade of which he was to speak also in the last months of his short life. But he may well have recognized that this subject inevitably debased humanity by showing only oppressors and hapless victims. His large drawing suggests that he was unable to escape from Morland’s prototypical image, even though he rendered the nude men and women in the heroic style of Jacques-Louis David. The notorious Middle Passage is, nevertheless, brought to mind by his depiction of a raft adrift on the Atlantic.
During the first stage of the abolitionist campaign in Europe, attention was focused on the slave trade—abandoned by Denmark in 1792 (taking effect from 1803), Britain in 1806, the United States in 1807, and by France briefly under the Directorate, officially from 1815 but effectively only after 1830. The horrors of the Middle Passage were thus very frequently described but, at first sight surprisingly, seldom depicted. The British abolitionists’ diagram of a slave ship was deliberately unartistic. A print after a drawing by Johann Moritz Rugendas of the hold of a slave ship was exhibited in the Salon in Paris in 1827—again an illustration on paper rather than a work of art as the term was understood. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers in 1847 projected a statue of a slave on board the notorious French vessel Le Rôdeur, but only in drawings—it was never to be realized. The only notable painting of the Middle Passage is Turners The Slave Ship of 1840. There was no more fervent admirer of this work than John Ruskin, who, after owning it for a while, sold it because he found the subject too painful—and this is not without significance.
Images of slavery were conditioned as much by the feelings of its opponents as the opinions of its defenders. Neither can have wished to have realistic representations of the whole truth in their homes. Marcel Verdier’s terrifying picture of a runaway tied down to be flogged must surely have been intended (like Biard’s scenes of the slave trade) for a public collection. That it should have been painted at all suggests a widening of French attitudes to subjects suitable for art although it was refused by the jury for exhibition in the Salon. But it shows only the preparation for torture: the lash is suspended in the air, and its effect is left to the imagination. There is no mark on the athletic body of Victor van Hove’s statue of a slave après la bastonnade. (By the nineteenth century the spectacle of lacerated flesh was too revolting to be represented even in religious paintings and sculptures.) The impact of these images was also softened by their association with places far from Europe, enabling the public to judge them simply on their artistic merits.
No such distancing was possible in the United States where slavery could be regarded neither as an alien phenomenon nor as a fit subject for artistic exploitation. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century it was ignored, and the whole black presence was understated in paintings of the American scene. Some portraits of free blacks who had defeated the system were, however, painted. They demonstrate the rights of their sitters while also exemplifying the characteristically American preference for factual instances rather than generalizations. That their implications were recognized is most clearly revealed by reactions to Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait of Cinque, who led a successful rebellion on a Spanish slave ship, the Amistad, in 1839 but was charged with piracy and imprisoned in the United States. Robert W. Purvis, an abolitionist who took pride in being partly of African descent, commissioned it and also engraved reproductions which were put on sale to raise funds for the defense of Cinque and his companions in the law courts. After the men had been exonerated and freed to return to Africa, the portrait was, nevertheless, barred from an exhibition in Philadelphia on the grounds that it “might prove injurious both to the proprietors and the institution.”
Until the eve of the Civil War, the abolitionist movement in the United States was faced with a violence of opposition it never had in Europe. Its publications were banned in the Southern states. Its leaders were subject to physical violence. And much of its activity was clandestine: the “Underground Railroad,” which helped slaves to escape through the North to Canada, was illegal. Artists thus made use of unobtrusive abolitionist symbolism that could be fully understood only by the initiated, as in Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South of 1859 and Thomas Waterman Wood’s A Southern Cornfield, Nashville, Tenn. of 1861. With their innocuous titles, these pictures could easily be mistaken for neutral depictions of slaves, and they were shown in public exhibitions in New York where they might not only strengthen the faith of militants but also help to persuade the unconverted of the human rights of blacks by the way in which they were represented. In their apparent realism and still more in their focus on aspirations for freedom—rather than the iniquity of slavery on which European artists concentrated—they are quintessentially American.
Artistic responses to the abolition of slavery in the United States are no less optimistic—but in two different ways. Some of the first continue to express hope for a bright future in which African Americans would be accorded full citizenship, without regard to color or previous status. Official monuments erected somewhat later, on the other hand, showed whites freed from guilt and blacks complaisantly accepting an inferior position. One of the many projected was to have reliefs suggesting that slavery was a necessary intermediate stage between savagery in Africa and freedom in America. Such monuments are similar to European celebrations of emancipation. There are also underlying affinities between American genre scenes showing blacks living happily in the place assigned to them and European paintings of Africans under colonial rule. Records of the atrocities committed against freemen in the southern United States were limited to illustrations in periodicals. Thomas Nast’s pungent drawings for Harper’s Weekly expressed the indignation of northern Democrats. But in Europe there seem to have been no reflections even in caricature of the protests made against the massacre of Africans in colonial wars.
In the course of the nineteenth century the relationship between European (as distinct from American) abolitionism and the commercial, cultural, and territorial colonization of Africa became symbiotic. This is no less clearly expressed in the visual arts than in the writings of the period. Although paintings of nearly naked Africans fighting to defend their lands and traditional ways of life record the courage of their resistance, there can be no doubt that they were intended to justify the repression of obstinate savagery that hindered the march of progress. Abolitionist iconography was sometimes appropriated for exclusively imperialist ends. The freeing of slaves was depicted in the last years of the century as one of the benefits of European rule in the Belgian Congo, of all places! In an extraordinary picture of the apotheosis of Queen Victoria, Africans kneel like the slave in the abolitionist emblem, but making no plea for freedom.
Works of art discussed in the first part of this volume still color our vision of momentous events. They are part, not merely illustrations, of historical phenomena. All had a propagandist purpose, and some were commissioned by patrons actively engaged in the abolition of slavery and colonization of Africa. They are, nevertheless, imaginative evocations transforming or interpreting information without which they could not have been executed and cannot be understood. The second part of the volume is devoted to works which transform reality in different ways. Their artists were themselves more often responsible for the choice of subjects, though not without regard for the mental prejudices and aesthetic tastes of possible purchasers. Whereas some works in the first part may seem merely to have exploited philanthropic ideas for artistic ends, those in the second often show deeper sensitivity to the plight of blacks in white society without explicit reference to slavery or freedom.
The second part of the volume begins with études or studies of blacks which were to be drawn and painted throughout the period. They differ from portraits in that virtually nothing is, or was supposed necessary to be, known of the men and women depicted, rarely as much as a name or nickname. Nor do they suggest any collusion between artist and sitter—that is to say, reconciliation of the formers vision with the latter’s self-estimation. Studies were painted of people—not only blacks—of social categories or ethnic types who rarely sat for formal portraits. Conceived primarily as a means of acquiring skill or knowledge, they were executed as a part of artistic education. The technical accomplishment they revealed was regarded as of greater importance than their subject matter. But they were also painted by mature artists to record countenances that attracted their attention. Blacks were the subject of many partly, no doubt, because they were relatively rarely to be seen in Europe outside port cities and when they were available as models presented opportunities for pictorial exploitation. Some are not only close to but incorporated in paintings of still life. There are, however, others which suggest an urge to explore human kinship beneath differences which are only skin-deep. It is difficult to believe that those by Reynolds and Copley, for instance, were not inspired by feelings of affinity. The same can be said of the highly finished half-length of a woman by Mme. Benoist which was, nevertheless, regarded at the time as the beautiful picture of an ugly subject. Astonishment that a woman should depict a black, even of the same gender, was also expressed, and Benoist was one of the very few to do so before the twentieth century. Many women wrote about blacks in the abolitionist cause, sometimes associating their own lot with that of slaves, but the act of painting necessitated a kind of intimacy that was, perhaps, felt unseemly by male-dominated white society.
An increase in the painting of studies coincided with the development of racial theories relating the size and shapes of heads, especially prognathism, to intellectual capacities. It would be hard to exaggerate the insidious influence on mental attitudes of diagrams comparing the heads of an ape, a black, and a European as an ascending sequence. The more complex but immensely popular pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology were also influential. But artists drawing or painting from life (as distinct from caricaturists working from imagination) usually and almost deliberately avoided telltale profiles that might either contradict or confirm the theorists except when employed by them. Even so, the portrayal of Saartjie—the “Hottentot Venus” who was publicly exhibited as a curiosity in London and Paris—seems nowadays by its very scientific precision to undermine the theory it was intended to support. Sculptors were employed to model busts for ethnologists. The most successful, Charles Cordier, began with the bust of an African who happened to come into the studio where he was working, but he subsequently produced for the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle in Paris a series of busts, in each of which he combined what he supposed to be the typical features of an ethnic group rarely to be found in any one of its members. He also executed versions of these busts in mixed media as richly colored decorative objects that could add a note of exoticism to a European house.
The fanciful exoticism that had been so popular in the eighteenth century was ruled out by demands for geographical accuracy (paralleling the development of historicism in architecture and the decorative arts). The nineteenth century was the second great period of European exploration, much of which was devoted to the previously inaccessible African interior. Books by travelers in Africa were among the best sellers of the period throughout the West. They were illustrated, but often by draftsmen who had never left Europe and worked from written descriptions, rough sketches, and, later, photographs. Few European and virtually no American professional artists went to equatorial or southern Africa. Samuel Danieli and George French Angas traveled in the south making drawings of the country and its people for publication in volumes intended for the public interested in geography. Of the artists who for various (rarely artistic) reasons took up residence there, the most accomplished was Thomas Baines, but his paintings seem to have been regarded at the time as documents excluded from the realm of art. Depictions of equatorial Africa were limited to those by artists employed by the French colonial officials in Senegal.
But while so few artists ventured into Africa south of the Sahara, hordes of them spread across the north, from Egypt to Morocco. The Islamic world, or the Orient as it was known in France (the word emphasizing contrast with the West), attracted ever increasing artistic attention in Europe—so near and yet so far and so different in its light, color, and the way of life of its peoples. In North Africa some artists experienced an enlargement and sharpening of their sense of vision; many more merely found an expansion of subject matter from the normal run of landscapes, genre, and historical scenes. Access to North Africa was of course facilitated by the French conquest of Algeria, which was commemorated in several large, officially commissioned paintings. But most artists regretted and few recorded the Europeanization of the country. Europeans are conspicuously absent from Orientalist paintings, though implicitly present as observers. Artists and their public were attracted by the contrast between the hectic progress of the mechanized West and a world where time was believed to have stood still for centuries if not millennia, arousing a mixture of envy and self-satisfaction.
As part of the multiethnic population of North Africa, blacks figure in innumerable Orientalist scenes, though rarely in leading roles and often as no more than patches of dark local color. They are in the background of some depictions of slave markets where pathos is, however, focused on the fair-skinned women offered for sale. They appear more often in pictures of harems, showing up the whiteness of odalisques who are posed to titillate the imagination of male Europeans. Some are female attendants—slaves of the slaves of lust. Others in male costume are presumably eunuchs, for the connection between emasculation and slavery seems to have encouraged the notion that they were black. Not until the late nineteenth century were black men shown as the masters of harems in pictures that were still more clearly intended to give form to erotic fantasies. For although sexually attractive black women were not infrequently depicted, virile blacks are rare in an art that was sexist as well as racist.
The vogue for Orientalist pictures in Europe seems to have led some American collectors to acquire them. But few American artists painted them. In American art of the nineteenth century, blacks figure most frequently in pictures of daily life where their place usually conformed with that accorded to them by white society. Free blacks in ultrafashionable clothes suggesting a measure of upward mobility were the subject of cruel caricatures published in Philadelphia in 1829, shortly before the first race riots broke out in the city. Prints were also published of Jim Crow—in fact a white actor who claimed to be mimicking the song and antics of a poor and deformed black man. But American painters eschewed such images, just as they rarely depicted destitute whites—so often the subject of European pictures. Social comment was expressed positively, not in criticism but a kind of idealism, by evoking the harmony between people of different classes and colors that might, and in some areas did, prevail. William Sidney Mount’s The Power of Music may well have been intended in this way. A painting by Winslow Homer of black teamsters in the Union army during the Civil War is titled The Bright Side. The quantity of genre scenes including blacks greatly increased from the 1870s. But Homer was unusual in addressing the social problems of the period of Reconstruction and its aftermath in pictures of blacks in Virginia that suggest both the aspirations and fears of men and women facing a future no longer as unclouded as had formerly been supposed. Watercolors he later painted of black men and youths in the tropical climate of the Caribbean, where he spent his winters from the mid-1880s, are quite different in their expression of joie de vivre. There are, however, allusions to slavery in the oil painting he composed on these visits, The Gulf Stream, which shows a solitary black adrift on a mastless boat in conflict with the forces of history and nature but still undefeated—a powerful comment on the plight of African Americans.
The situation of blacks in the social structure could not be entirely ignored by any American artist who represented them. Only by Europeans could they be regarded quite simply as subjects for works of art with or without symbolic overtones. Paul Gauguin’s paintings of life on Martinique—contemporary with some of Homer’s Caribbean watercolors—included blacks as novel subjects for the new artistic style he was beginning to develop. For he had begun the flight from the constraints of European civilization that was to lead him to the South Pacific and the deeper exploration of his own psyche—travel to the periphery as a means of finding the center. He painted no more blacks—even though a contemporary regarded his Polynesian models as such. But his later works, with their symbolic or expressive rather than naturalistic color, their defiance of the Renaissance system of perspective, and their appeal to the unconscious, furthered a revolution in attitudes to all images. In the avant-garde art of the early twentieth century, differences of skin color and even physiognomy lose their significance. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether paintings by German expressionists are of black or white models. Matisse’s statuette group Two Negresses owes its title to a photograph which was his point of departure rather than to its appearance. There was no place for images of blacks in cubist, let alone abstract, art. We seem to reach the point at which, to quote phrases from the Communist Manifesto out of context: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real condition of life, and his relationship with his kind.”
In the present century, white men and women have been increasingly forced to reconsider their relations with the rest of humanity, though no more than partly for the reasons advanced by Marx and Engels. The carnage on the battlefields of the First World War revealed beneath Western civilization a savagery that had previously been ascribed to other peoples and held to justify the so-called pacification of Africa. Still worse was to follow in the Second World War. The Holocaust laid bare with shocking clarity the evil latent in even the least offensive and apparently objective theories of race. That anthropologists turned from the categorization of ethnic differences to the structural affinities underlying them is no coincidence. White arrogation of superiority has also been actively defied. The decolonization of all but one part of Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States have demonstrated the ability of blacks to throw off oppression in ways that cannot be marginalized (as the foundation of Haiti was) or represented as an achievement of white philanthropists. Refusing to measure their souls by the tape of an alien world—as Du Bois put it—black writers have trenchantly expressed their own views and won increasing admiration throughout the West.
These developments have obliged whites to reconsider the history of blacks in Africa and the Americas, with a new focus on their resistance to colonization, slavery, and racial discrimination. The history of Africa is no longer written as if it began with the arrival of Europeans and was of interest only insofar as it traced the extension of their hegemony. Accounts of the abolitionist movement now acknowledge the vital, but previously underestimated or disingenuously concealed, part played in it by African Americans. So far as the visual arts are concerned, there has been a revaluation of those by Africans and more recently African Americans—and also of images of blacks by whites, now more closely studied than ever before and given prominence in museums, especially in the United States. But as images in Western art are necessarily refracted through the minds of whites, they express the new self-identification of blacks only at two removes—as reflections of reflections.
This volume and, indeed, the whole of the Menil Foundation’s Image of the Black in Western Art illustrates the black presence in the culture of the West. The images discussed emanated from the social structures of the times and places of their creation. But like all surviving works of art—as distinct from documents which have no more than historical significance—they have become part of the Western culture of our time, less Eurocentric than it was and more willing to respect ethnic identity as the natural right of every human being.
I should like to express my gratitude first of all to Mrs. de Menil for inviting me to write this book and for her unstinting support and encouragement. It could not have been begun without the already extensive photographic archive and library of the Menil Foundation, nor could it have been brought to a conclusion without the unfailingly generous, stimulating, and patient cooperation of Ladislas Bugner. Monique Bugner’s research in the libraries and archives of Paris has been of immense help. In Houston, Karen C. C. Dalton has been indefatigable in checking and enlarging on my bibliographical references, very often finding new information that has now been incorporated in the text. She has saved me from many errors and greatly enlarged my knowledge of American art. The notes, in fact, are partly her work, and she compiled all those summarizing the basic data on the illustrations. To Professor Peter Woods care in reading and commenting on the text I owe a great deal. At home I have always had the advantage of John Flemings encouragement and suggestions. And, in addition, I am greatly indebted to all those colleagues who are thanked individually for information in the notes, and to the many long-suffering friends with whom I have discussed my work. I should also like to thank the staffs of the libraries I have most frequently used, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence and the London Library. The notes acknowledge my sources for specific information, mainly on works of art, but I should like to acknowledge my deep indebtedness to Alain Locke’s pioneering study, The Negro in Art, and to several books which I have always had on my table when writing, especially Philip D. Curtin, The Image of Africa; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution; and H. W. Debrunner, Presence and Prestige: Africans in Europe. For the opinions expressed in this book I am, of course, alone responsible.