Portraits of Black Womanhood

Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammys (Getty Images).

When I first encountered Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une Negresse at the Louvre, I had just researched and encountered the remains of Sara Baartman at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The year was 1999. The painting itself dates from 1800, fourteen years before Baartman arrived in Paris and peaked the curiosity of Parisian audiences and natural scientists alike with her “Hottentot Venus” exhibit. Indeed, Portrait d’une Negresse serves as both a visual departure from and adherence to the iconographic depictions of Baartman. Similar to portraits of Baartman, this “Negresse” is depicted in the nude; in contrast, however, she is rendered as an aesthetic subject, her dark skin providing powerful contrast to the white headdress and cloth that barely cover her body.

Hanging in gallery space among countless portraits upholding the aesthetic value of whiteness, Benoist’s painting (literally translated to mean “Portrait of a Black Woman”) provides a counter-aesthetic and racial challenge to views of the Black body, from the rendering of the subject’s softened facial features to her bared noble right breast (akin to the exposed breast of Delacroix’s “Liberty“). Some art historians and cultural critics tend to view this portrayal through the lens of racialized exoticism, her bared breast interpreted as “naked” rather than “nude,” and the headdress – a signifier of her blackness/servitude – as a visual code for the Africanist or Orientalist presence.  Yet, as James Smalls points out, Benoist’s contemporaries were scandalized by her depiction of dark skin for serious aesthetic treatment. He further notes that Benoist may well be rendering our Black female subject in allegorical terms – as early French feminists during the Revolutionary period were given to making analogies between “women” and “slaves.” Here, in this painting, our subject bridges the two groups in an early visual manifestation of intersectionality and the nexus between race and gender.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une Negresse (Wikimedia Commons).

Benoist’s painting came just six years after France abolished slavery in its colonies in the wave of Revolutionary changes, but it would be short lived with the continuous war for Haiti’s independence – begun in 1791 with the first successful slave uprising in the Americas – and with Napoleon reinstating slavery in 1802, which of course did not quell the war with Haiti, which became the first independent black nation two years later. Nonetheless, these tensions between freedom and slavery, between women’s rights and subjugation, between women’s artistic expression and objectification, are all captured in Portrait d’une Negresse, a painting canonized by its inclusion at the Louvre and given a legacy all its own.

Its afterlife exists in different ways. There was the furor in 2012 over the Spanish magazine Fuera de Serie, which superimposed the face of First Lady Michelle Obama on the portrait, thus causing African Americans to label the publication “disrespectful” for equating her status with a nude slave. There is also a renaissance, as it were, of black women artists reclaiming the figure and thus elevating the black feminine subject for art history and aesthetic interventions. Artists such as Maud Sulter, the late Afro-Scottish artist who alluded to this figure in her portrait of writer Bonnie Greer, and Elizabeth Colomba, who reimagines our “Negresse” clothed and contemplating a life beyond the borders of the canvas, offer powerful counter-narratives that reinstate the art object’s subjectivity. This is much like the encounter Afro-British screenwriter Misan Sagay experienced when she viewed the eighteenth-century painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle – which hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland – at an exhibit, thus inspiring the film, Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Amma Asante.

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, 1779 (Johann Zoffany, Wikimedia Commons)

Other artists, such as Fabiola Jean-Louis, are mixing photography and various materials as a means of “Rewriting History,” which she does by literally “fashioning” paper in period-costume designs that re-present the Black female body for classical and neo-classical portraiture. And within the realm of popular culture, pop star Beyoncé has expanded beyond music to establish herself as a visual artist and curator. Using her own pregnant body as canvas this year, her art forms have elevated the black female body for aesthetic appreciation and critical intervention. Her Goddess-infused Grammy-show performance alone subverts an American protestant culture that upholds the virtues of white masculinity while casting Black femininity in the realm of materiality, versus spirituality, and the demonic. Indeed, with constant news of the assault on reproductive justice and the dismal news of high rates of maternal mortality among African American women, this visual elevation and valuing of black motherhood becomes ever more urgent as a political art project.

Of course, we must ask: what do we gain when we emphasize Black beauty as a project for Black liberation? What is the difference when a white woman – such as Annie Liebovitz – captures the sublime pregnant nude body of tennis champion Serena Williams, versus a Black woman like Beyoncé who self-presents her scantily-clad nude pregnant body on a widely watched awards show? Pop singer and actress Vanessa Williams, who was made to hide her pregnant belly when performing at the Grammy Awards Show in 1993, marveled at how far our culture had come in viewing the full-figured female body in this way, without sexual objectification and without shame. How far have we progressed when tracing the lineage from Benoist’s painting to portraits made of and by Black women today?

Just as there are enough “wins” for Black women publicized this year – from the births of Beyoncé’s twins and Serena Williams’s daughter to the latter’s Vogue-photographed wedding to Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry to Rihanna’s successful launch of Fenty Beauty to Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign going viral – there are also just as many losses felt in terms of Black women’s precarious health and the continued violence against us. And yet, the visual representation of Black womanhood holds cultural power when rendered as a serious aesthetic subject for beauty, desirability, and bodily autonomy.

Whatever violence might have shaped the life of Benoist’s “Negresse,” we don’t see it represented with whipped scars or downtrodden expressions. Instead, we see a dark-skinned woman looking directly at her viewers, whose breast may be laid bare but her hand is modestly placed over her lower torso, as though she is ready to defend and protect her body, her very self from any potential violators. There is a certain self-assertion in this painting we don’t often see in Western portraits of Black subjects. And perhaps Benoist, a white aristocratic woman, may have implicitly understood her own freedom was wrapped up in the freedom of this Black woman. That alone makes it a compelling contribution to Black women’s histories.

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Janell Hobson

Janell Hobson is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005, 2nd ed. 2018) and Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012). She also writes and blogs for Ms. Magazine. Follow her on Twitter@JProfessor.