Why Did An 18th Century French Woman Paint This Portrait Of A Slave?

marie benoist portrait of a black woman

Many believe Benoist's painting is a celebration of the abolition of slavery and an analogy of France's new Republic. So, what's behind this highly controversial painting?

For centuries, the Paris Salon exhibitions organized by the Académie des Beaux-Arts was the most important event in the art world. From its origins in the seventeenth century to its peak during the nineteenth, this event exhibited some of the most important artworks in the history of Art. If you were granted the chance to show your work at this hall, it meant that you had a bright future ahead or that your career was actually going somewhere. That is if you didn’t create a controversial piece that would make those aristocratic attendants lose their monocles. But it was also those works, that caused the most stir among the attendants, the ones that have proven to be more innovative and enlightening that even today we continue discussing their defiant nature. The painting we’re going to discuss was exhibited at the 1800 Salon causing a huge scandal. Now, you’ve seen a part of the painting in the main image of the article, and I bet you can kind of guess why the stir was all about, but what attracts many art historians to this day is the reason and intention behind the painting.


To start with we must talk about the artist, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, an aristocratic painter that belonged to an elite group of female painters at the time. Her work basically centers on domestic depictions of womanhood and historical scenes, that was what was expected or better say tolerated for female artists. Now, let’s go directly to the matter of this particular painting called Portrait d’une négresse. It's still unknown whether Benoist painted it as a message supporting anti-slavery or not. To start with, many have focused on the political interpretation of the painting starting with the fact that Benoist was the student of Jacques-Louis David, a famous neoclassical painter who was well known for his political analogies in painting. He was one of the most active artists of the French Revolution, being one of Robespierre’s closest friends. Taking that into account, historians and critics have seen this painting as a clear example of David’s influence.


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Portrait d'une négresse (1800)


This was painted only eleven years after the Storming of the Bastille. France was living through an intense political transformation in which Nationalism and a new political system were being installed, with Napoleon taking over the reins of the country. So, the first thing that’s taken into account about this painting is the nationalistic and subtle symbolism present in this quite sober work. The woman is wearing white clothes with a red waistband while sitting on a blue chair. Here, it’s thought that Benoist was making reference to the times of the Revolution as the episode that took away the blindfold of the people of France’s eyes. Moreover, that demure style is often understood as a wink to the whole movement as a contrast with the opulent and overcharged style that characterized the royal lifestyle. 


Besides that, this has been seen, as we commented as a celebration of the emancipation of slaves. In 1794, the Convention declared the abolition of slavery in French colonies claiming that all men, regardless of their color or race, residing in French territory had the same rights according to their constitution. This was naturally quite a controversial matter in France where many felt outraged while others celebrated the decision to follow the new mottos of the country, “liberté, égalité, et fraternité”. Freedom, mainly, seems to to be the central idea of the portrait. On the one hand, we see this woman with a strong and confident attitude looking directly at the viewer denoting that she’s a free woman. But at the same time, following the Medieval and Renaissance fashion of the Nursing Madonnas, she’s showing her bare breast as an allegory of her being the representation of the mother that nurtures the new French Republic without racism nor differences between her children.


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Portrait of a Young Black Woman - Simon Willem Maris (1890s)


Now, this might sound quite logical, so, why do many still believe this wasn’t quite accurate? To start with, as art critic Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby states, we have to focus on the name of the painting. It’s said that Benoist followed the fashion of male portraits in which men were depicted as symbols of moral authority and virtue. However as Grigsby states, if that was the case the Benoist would have had named the painting after her model and not strip her away from her real identity by putting her as just a type. Which brings the subject of color, more than just disagreeing with the theory that states that Benoist was making a celebration of the emancipation of slaves, art critics like Helen Weston, believe that the key evidence lies in the color selection of the painting. According to her, the fact that she chose a really light background shows that she wanted to contrast this woman’s skin color was following a trend in which the “ugliness” of darker skins were highlighted to make fun of or to make a point.


Another of what the detractors of the anti-slavery theory focus on is the political reality of the Benoist family. According to Helen Weston, it’s very unlikely for Benoist to actually make such a political statement with that painting since, at the time of the exhibition, Napoleon’s government was encouraging the restoration of slavery on the French territory (which basically happened just two years later). Now. Weston’s evidence is that Benoist’s husband had been favored by Napoleon’s government and was a prominent figure at the time that wouldn’t have allowed his wife to make such controversial statements against the new regime. 


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Portrait of a Young Woman - Unknown (1790s)


Now, if you ask me all this “evidence” doesn’t prove anything. The name point for me doesn’t really mean that the artist is stripping this woman’s identity, it’s more than clear that she’s making an allegory and the painting isn’t the portrait of a particular person, but a representation of a whole group. The color schemes, sound a bit too far-fetched for me, and although I tried looking at this so-called trend, I wasn’t able to really find something convincing. For me, in my very own interpretation, the selection of colors help to make us focus only on her face and intense look. To drag us to this woman’s experience that at the end of the day were the realities of so many black people throughout the French territory. As for the political reasoning Weston makes, there’s evidence showing that Benoist’s family were active abolitionists and when the movement reemerged in 1820, both her husband and she were the first to join the movement.


What happens here and that actually makes more sense than all the detractors' points is that at the time there was a first and shortwave of feminism encouraged by the egalitarian atmosphere that the Revolution promoted. So, in relation to this, it became a trend between intellectual women and some supporters to understand both, the female experience throughout history and slavery as being kind of comparable. For that reason, there were many artworks or even texts in which women placed themselves in the place of black people to show that they had, as well, suffered the chains of society and were stripped away from their right to be free. 


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Slovenščina: Zamorka - Anton Ažbe (1895)


I don’t think that’s quite the same, but this was a common analogy that got replicated for a time and it’s very likely that Portrait d’une négresse followed this particular trend as a statement of the artist towards a feminist emerging movement. No matter what, even when she experienced the reactions her painting evoked in the viewers, perhaps she never imagined the reaches the discussion it was going to bring regarding a subject that is still extremely relevant nowadays, equality.




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María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards


Articulista Bilingüe CC+
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