Rediscovering the Black Muses Erased from Art History

Tess Thackara
Oct 9, 2018 9:46PM

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Is there anything left to say about Édouard Manet’s Olympia, the 1863 painting widely viewed as the origin point of modern art? According to art historian Denise Murrell, there is one line of inquiry, at least, that has gone almost entirely overlooked.

Before she embarked on her Ph.D. program at Columbia University, Murrell had been keeping a running list of “instances of black” in Western art history. There was Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s portrait of a black woman from 1800, painted to mark the 1794 abolition of slavery in the French colonies, which hangs in the Musée du Louvre. There was Eugène Delacroix’s Orientalist Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Turban (1827). There was Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Duval (1862), the biracial mistress of the French critic and poet Charles Baudelaire. And there were Edgar Degas’s paintings of the mixed-race circus acrobat Miss Lala, who performed at the Folies Bergère. The most notable instance for Murrell, though, was the black maid who appears at the foot of the courtesan’s bed in Olympia, wearing modern clothing and holding a bouquet of flowers.

William H. Johnson, Portrait of Woman with Blue and White Striped Blouse, ca. 1940–42. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Laura Wheeler Waring, Anna Washington Derry, 1927. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


Olympia is, according to art history survey classes, textbooks, and museum wall labels, the painting that takes the first real step away from the academic romanticism of the early 19th century, placing the female muse in the contemporary realm of the demi-monde—the class of women who inhabited the French underworld of brothels and debauchery—and imbuing her with agency. Murrell sees something different. “There are two women in that painting, one white and one black,” she said. “Manet presented both of them to us with almost equally strong pictorial values.” To Murrell’s eye, the maid figure, while loaded with “all the issues of race and class of that period,” also gets a modernist update. In contrast with the white servant in Titian’s earlier touchstone Venus of Urbino (1538), Manet’s maid is brought forward, closer to the center of the painting. She is not the “exotic, bare-breasted Other that was the standard mode of portraying black women,” Murrell said. “She is clad in everyday attire rather than the meticulously rendered, lavish silks, and turbans, and jewelry of the imaginary Orient.”

Murrell’s investigations into the understudied black muses of art history are the subject of her thesis, and now an exhibition, “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” which will go on view at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery later this month, and then onto the Musée d’Orsay next year in expanded form. The exhibitions and accompanying catalogue will reveal the “black presence at the very center of the milieu in which Manet and the Impressionists circulated,” a free black community whose ongoing influence Murrell traces throughout the modern era—by way of Degas, Henri Matisse, Romare Bearden, and female artists like Faith Ringgold, Lorraine O’Grady, and Mickalene Thomas, who have more recently drawn inspiration from these forgotten muses.

Édouard Manet, Baudelaire’s Mistress (Portrait of Jeanne Duval), 1862. Photo by Csanád Szesztay. © The Museum of Fine Arts Budapest / Scala / Art Resource, NY.

In 1862, Manet turned his eye to a woman named Laure, the model that would pose as the maid in Olympia. She lived not far from him, at 11 Rue Vintimille, just below the Place de Clichy, as he jotted down in his notebook. That year, he would paint Laure not once, but three times—including in a standalone portrait, La négresse (1863), which Murrell calls “Portrait of Laure” for the specificity of the subject’s features and its departure from the dominant ethnographic lenses used to portray people of color at the time. Black Parisians appear in works by other members of Manet’s circle, too, including the images of the photographer Nadar, who hosted the first Impressionist exhibition in his studio. Nadar shot black caregivers, lawyers, actresses, the wife of a provincial mayor, and other members of the working classes and bourgeoisie, who, by and large, lived alongside the French avant-garde in the northern neighborhoods of the 9th and 17th arrondissements.

Murrell’s research doesn’t only affirm the presence of a black community that has received little attention from mainstream art history. She also argues for the ongoing impact of this community and its influence on the evolution of artistic practices; in their efforts to represent the modern world, artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries turned toward the increasingly multiracial communities that surrounded them. Contrary to the racist, Orientalist attitudes of the era—which dismissed peoples of the African diaspora as inferior, backward, unenlightened—Murrell effectively posits that Laure, Miss Lala, and other black figures of Western art history were also seen as harbingers of the modern world. Manet understood, art historian Anne Higgonet writes in the exhibition catalogue, “that relationships among class, gender, and race structure our modern lives.”

Manet may be Murrell’s starting point, but there are numerous other stops along the expansive history she outlines. Among them are Matisse’s drawings of the Haitian dancer Carmen Lahens, illustrations he created to accompany a volume of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which, in turn, was inspired by his biracial mistress, Duval. These single-line portraits are light and eminently modern; Matisse eschews the headwrap and hoop earrings that are often deployed in his earlier, archetypal depictions of black women made on trips to Tahiti and Morocco. Here, the image of Carmen is, writes Murrell, “a rare portrayal of a black woman that sublimates her ethnicity instead of trumpeting it.”

Henri Matisse, Dame à la robe blanche (Woman in white), 1946. © 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rich Sanders.

Charles Alston, Girl in a Red Dress, 1934. Courtesy of the Wallach Art Gallery.

How did Matisse, in the 1940s, come to represent a black woman as a model of feminine beauty in a way that was relatively unburdened by the exoticizing tropes in his earlier paintings? Murrell suggests it may have had something to do with the artist’s visits to Harlem in the 1930s, a little-known history that she uncovered in her research. While working on murals for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Matisse traveled to New York and met with artists connected to the Harlem Renaissance, like Carl Van Vechten, and wrote to his family and friends about visiting remarkable black plays. He saw firsthand the innovations and vibrancy of what was then the cultural center of African-American life in the United States.

“Matisse wasn’t doing the Orientalist thing he was doing when he traveled to North Africa anymore,” Murrell said. These later paintings depicted “just urban, urbane, cosmopolitan women of the 1940s, carrying none of the markers of race or ethnicity that had been standard through the portrayal of black women of the past.”

Murrell also turns her eye to Romare Bearden, who further advanced the centrality of the black female figure in modern art, placing her in the position of the odalisque in Black Venus (1968) and Patchwork Quilt (1970), to name a few examples, surrounded by references to African-American culture. But it is with the work of Ringgold, Thomas, and other contemporary female artists who explore, critique, and reclaim these histories, that the black woman is finally released from the white male gaze altogether. Ringgold, like Bearden, directly references the work of Manet and Matisse in a series of quilts that includes Jo Baker’s Birthday (1993) and Matisse’s Model (1991), both of which place the black odalisque firmly at the center of art history.

While black artists, in particular, have not failed to notice the profound significance of these histories, academics, it seems, have. Murrell found few Manet and Matisse scholars who had looked closely at the black presence in the artists’ work—aside from art historian Griselda Pollock, who wrote about Laure in her 1999 book Differencing the Canon. To fellow art historian T.J. Clark, Laure ultimately “meant nothing.” To Murrell, she represents subjects that were absolutely “central to modern life”—issues of race, class, and gender that are still shaping the world today.

Tess Thackara