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
, 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.”