Abby Beal and Dr. Martha Peacock, Visual Arts
The painting Portrait of a Negress completed in 1800 is a rare piece for its time. The painting is unique because of its isolation of a rare subject for art—the black woman. Not only is the subject rare, but also the painting gains more interest because the artist was a woman herself— uncommon in France in the 1800s. Traditionally, the connection between a painter and a black subject at this time can be seen as a colonial ownership over the black visual. However, the connection between the woman artist, Marie Benoist, and her black female subject in this painting is not traditional. Therefore, the study of this painting shows that the artist and subject successfully connected on the basis of gender, therefore overriding racial, colonial, social, and economic barriers between the two women.
Under post-colonial studies, which address mostly men in application with art historical studies because of the frequency of male artists, artists usually take control over the colonized subject by making the subject a mimic, a hybrid, or a fetish. Throughout history male artists have done this repeatedly, especially in dealing with foreign women. Yet Marie Benoist does not turn the negress into such a subject.
Benoist does not try to adopt the negress as a Frenchwoman, but neither does she try to create contrasts between herself and her subject. Because of Benoist’s own place in society as a female artist, she was able to depict this unique image of a black woman. Applied to art history, postcolonialist theory claims that outside the bounds of colonialism viewers cannot make such blanket claims based on works done in colonial eras. However, Benoist is a perfect example of what may perhaps be a position most free from the colonialist viewpoint. James D. Herbert suggests that we deconstruct colonialism by “necessarily and productively operat[ing] from a base within the colonial[?]” He continues to state that, from looking at works within the colonial, we can “recognize the multivocality that allows for the possibility of resistance and disruption from within—both in the past and in the present.”1
Benoist is a prime example of such multivocality. Looking at post-colonialism in terms of gender adds a new aspect to colonialist works that may undermine the classical male interpretation of such works and will add a new complexity to a racial question regarding this work of art. Benoist produced what scholar Honi K. Bhabba calls art where “identity and difference are neither One nor the Other” but instead create an “in-between.”2
This in-between view of the negress is achieved because Benoist is a multivocal artist. Her gender alone makes her so while her abolitionist views contribute to another side of the artist. Benoist did have strong abolitionist feelings, but these are shown differently in her work than in the obvious anti-slavery images of the day. In a comparison of Benoist’s work to those of more blatant abolitionist artists, Benoist is less condescending towards and less possessive of her subject.
Benoist’s image, while highly abolitionist, especially for its time in 1800, maintains that a black woman is not within the weak stereotype of black woman. Instead she asserts that the rational traits, so valued by French society are as prevalent in the negress as they are in Benoist’s own self portrait, painted in 1786. The striking similarity in classical pose and costume supports the claim that Benoist intentionally depicted her black counterpart as a mental and rational equal.
This intelligent depiction contrasts with the orientalizing images that were popular escapist paintings for France. French colonial artists commonly used the black woman as a displayed sexualized image. Not only is her race hopeless, but her gender combined with her race made her existence justifiable for the sake of white males. Therefore, she is literally a possession for them. This ownership is emphasized in art through the exaggeration of the difference that existed in that time between the male and the non-white female.
Benoist, because she does not orientalize her subject nor make her subject a victim of slavery, does not depict the black woman in the traditional way of ownership. By her unique depiction of the negress, Benoist does not let color be the defining characteristic of her subject.3 The negress, while black, is not who she is because she is black. Instead, Benoist makes gender the defining characteristic of whom the woman is. Through gender identification, Benoist depicted the negress in an unusual fashion to make her more capable, human, and more free than the black woman was portrayed by male artists. Even after applying a post-colonial view to Marie Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress, one can still draw the conclusion that Benoist associated herself with her black subject.
In researching Marie Benoist’s life and the time period of her painting, I found a lot of support to back up my claim that Benoist was not a colonialist artist herself. While there is not a wide amount of information on Benoist, by looking at her life in comparison to the general public in France at the time, she does stand out as an unusual artist for her female and anti-slavery views. These views are shown in the portrait, which elevates the black female to an equal level with the artist, in contrast to the traditional, colonial ownership usually placed on these subjects within art of this era. By analyzing this portrait with a post-colonialist viewpoint I discovered different ways to look at a work and the new insights and problems that different viewpoints can reveal.
- James D. Herbert, “Passing Between Art History and Postcolonial Theory,” The Subjects of Art History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 214.
- Gen Doy, Black Visual Culture: Modernity and Postmodernity. (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2000), p. 209. 42
- Albert Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990) p. 47.