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French museum renames masterpieces after black subjects

French art masterpieces have been renamed after their long overlooked black subjects in a ground-breaking new Paris show on the representation of people of colour in art.

The centrepiece of the show, Manet’s “Olympia”, the scandalous painting of a naked reclining prostitute that marks the birth of “modern art”, has kept its title. However, top billing for the painting in its display now goes to “Laure”, the woman who posed as her black maid.

But several major works have been given new names after curators of “Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse” – which opens Tuesday at the d’Orsay Museum – turned historical detective to hunt down the identity of their sitters.

The enormous exhibition with paintings by Delacroix, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard and Cezanne tackles the depiction of black and mixed race people in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s.

American scholar Denise Murrell said it reveals how black people played a major role in the birth of modern art in Paris but were written out of the story.

From Jeanne Duval, the “Black Venus” who was mistress and muse to the poet Baudelaire — and who was also painted by Manet — to Cuban singer Maria Martinez and the novelist Alexandre Dumas, the author of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, Murrell insisted “there was a black presence in avant garde circles when artists and writers defied convention” when “interracial socialising” was taboo.

– Racism and stereotyping –

Murrell added that the influence of people of colour has been eclipsed from art history by racism and stereotyping. Instead, their identities have been hidden behind “unnecessary racial references” such as or mixed-race “” – which comes from the French word for mule. 

Murrell and her fellow curators have revealed the subjects’ real names in new titles for the show, “which would have been the case if they had been European”, she added, with the historic titles relegated to second place.

Renamed works from the museum’s own collection will carry both the new name and the historic title when they go back on display after the show.

The tone is set from the stunning opening “Portrait of a Negress” — renamed “Portrait of Madeleine” for the show — painted by Marie-Guillemine Benoist in the short period between the French Revolution’s abolition of slavery in 1788 and Napoleon reinstating it in 1802.

“For more than 200 years there has never been an investigation to discover who she was — something that was recorded at the time,” Murrell said.

– ‘Art history left them out’ -“

This is emblematic. It was art history that left them out. It has contributed to the construction of these figures as racial types as to the individuals they were,” she added.

Yet black people featured in some of the greatest artworks of the period, with Gericault giving three the starring roles as desperate shipwrecked sailors in his masterpiece, “The Raft of the Medusa”.

The painter’s favourite model, an art-loving Haitian called Joseph, the heroic figure on the raft, finally gets his place in the limelight in the show.

It also hails campaigning work that abolitionist artists like Gericault did to end slavery. But abolition, as Cezanne’s “The Negro Scipio” demonstrated, did not mean the end of discrimination and despair. 

Until a wave of volunteers from France’s African colonies fought in the trenches of World War I, black Parisians were often confined to working as servants, circus performers, prostitutes, nannies and wet nurses, with black women’s milk thought to be richer and more nutritious.

– Roles reversed – Old art world habits also died hard.

Even as the US dancer Josephine Baker became a massive star in 1920s France, black models were still largely nameless and labelled as racial types, including those who sat for the jazz fan Matisse, who had travelled to New York to soak up the Harlem Renaissance of black culture. 

His three black and mixed race models, who included a well-known actress and journalist, finally get their due in the show.

But it is Manet’s black maid who is its real star. 

She appears in no less than eight takes on his canvass, including two modern versions: “Olympia in Black Face” by the American Larry Rivers and the Congolese artist Aime Mpane’s even wryer “Olympia II”, which turns the tables with a white servant offering a bouquet containing a skull to her black boss.

“Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse”, a massively expanded version of a show last year at New York’s Wallach Art Gallery based on Murrell’s doctoral thesis, runs until July 21.

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