Édouard Manet’s painting “Olympia” depicts a naked woman. The artist drew inspiration from Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” which depicts the recumbent nude goddess of love, and Goya’s “Maja desnuda,” in which a naked Venus lies on a green divan and pillows, smiling coyly.
But the subject of Manet’s painting is not a goddess. She is a Parisian courtesan, and far more substantial than the female figures on which she was based—not because she is fatter or a prostitute, but in how she is rendered. While the Venuses of Titian and Goya stand out in frame, with narrow shadows on the fabric and their torso’s curves, Manet outlines his courtesan in near-black such that “Olympia” bears a graphic quality, like a pin-up drawing. This sexual suggestion explains the initial controversy of the work: Upper-class Parisians at the 1865 Salon were angry that Venus had become a prostitute, sporting heels, a neck ribbon and an indifferent expression despite her “salacious” position. Her hand clutches her thigh. To match the grittiness, Manet’s lines are dark, unlike those used for the cloudy, angelic Venuses.
Shift your focus to the right side of the painting, however, and you see the courtesan’s Black servant. She is depicted as a background element, part of the scene rather than the subject of the portrait, posed in an openbody position and delineated in black. Like the nude goddesses of tradition, she has a softer expression and broader brushstrokes, her expression inquisitive. She is cloudier but commands as much space as her companion, despite viewers’ failure to acknowledge her.
In a 2013 dissertation for Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, Denise Murrell explains how the changing depictions of Black female models formed the foundations of modern art. She goes on to discuss interactions between the French avant-garde painters of the 19th century and the free Black Parisian community (Columbia Academic Commons, “Seeing Laure: Race and Modernity from Manet’s Olympia to Matisse, Bearden and Beyond,” 2014). Leading into the 20th century, Murrell explores Henri Matisse’s visits to Harlem jazz clubs and the likes of Laura Wheeler and Charles Alston, American painters who challenged racial stereotypes during the Harlem Renaissance (Columbia Academic Commons, “Seeing Laure”). Murrell curated an exhibition similarly titled “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York City. Alongside Cécile Debray and Stéphane Guégan, she co-curated a Paris iteration of the exhibition, called “Black models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which opened recently and will be on view until July. Not only is the Paris exhibition larger, but it also has temporarily retitled the works to feature the names of the Black models.
These subjects contributed greatly to modernism, says Murrell, but their identities were erased by “unnecessary racial references” and stereotypes like “bare-breasted” exoticized women in harem scenes and Orientalist art. “Art history … left them out. [These labels have] contributed to the construction of these figures as racial types as opposed to the individuals they were” (Smithsonian. com, “Musée d’Orsay Renames Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and Other Works in Honor of Their Little-Known Black Models,” 03.27.2019).
Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Negress” was renamed “Portrait of Madeleine” in the Paris exhibition. Murrell pointed out that no one has attempted to find the subject’s identity, an issue emblematic of how art history—rather, all history—treats Black women. “Olympia” was seminal in that the Black woman was depicted with agency, as a part of Parisian life, rather than an exotic figure. No longer was the Black female muse an “other.” Murrell told The New York Times Arts Correspondent Hilarie M. Sheets, “She’s not bare-breasted or in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant. Here she almost seems to be a friend of the prostitute, maybe even advising her” (The New York Times, “New Attention for Figures in the Background,” 10.25.2018). The servant has an identity, an origin and an occupation, but she is constrained by a racist, sexist society.
Her name was Laure. She was in two other Manet paintings, “Children in the Tuileries Gardens” and “La Négresse (Portrait of Laure).” The painter considered her “a very beautiful Black woman” and wrote her address in a notebook (Smithsonian.com, “d’Orsay”).
“Black models” features portraits from Delacroix, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard and Cézanne (Hyperallergic, “Musée d’Orsay Puts Focus on Overlooked and Anonymous Black Models in French Masterpieces,” 03.27.2019). Entering the Harlem Renaissance and the latter half of the 20th century, we see Black artists depicting Black subjects. In his 1970 piece “Patchwork Quilt,” Romare Bearden renders a pictorial reclining nude. In her 2012 portrait “Din, Une Très Belle Négresse,” Mickalane Thomas paints a Black woman in blue lipstick, gazing powerfully out (Smithsonian.com, “Exhibition Re-Examines Modernism’s Black Models,” 11.06.2018).
Murrell’s research, and the “Black models,” are especially pertinent considering France’s current color-blind politics. Although about five percent of France’s population is non-European and non-white, the country faces issues related to its multiethnic demographics. It has no race-conscious public policies that recognize groups as races, much less acknowledge racial disadvantage. While policymakers have attacked hate speech, they have not progressed to targeting discrimination in jobs and housing like the United States or Britain (Brookings, “Race Policy in France,” 05.01.2001). As “Black models” encourages consideration of long-overlooked subjects and artists in modern art; perhaps it is time to reexamine treatment of race by the state.