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In Pictures: The Forgotten History of the Black Model in Western Art

A new book traces the role of the black model in art history from the 19th century to today

Often overlooked in the history of western Modernism, the black female figure was in fact central to the development of modern art. A new book by Denise Murrell Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today (2018) reasserts the importance of these women. ‘Shifting modes of depicting the black female figure are foundational to the evolving aesthetics of modern art, and are part of what makes modern art modern’, Murrell argues.

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, oil on canvas, 60 × 75 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, oil on canvas, 60 × 75 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Bazille’s painting marks the first in a lineage of paintings portraying the black Parisian proletariat.

Charles Alston, Girl in a Red Dress, 1934, oil on canvas, 71 × 56 cm. Courtesy: Collection Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts, San Antonio. 

Charles Alston, Girl in a Red Dress, 1934, oil on canvas, 71 × 56 cm. Courtesy: Collection Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts, San Antonio. 

Charles Alston was part of the Harlem Renaissance, the first modernist movement to work in opposition to prevalent racist stereotypes.

William H. Johnson, Portrait of Woman with Blue and White Striped Blouse, ca. 1940–42, tempera on paperboard, 71 × 56 cm. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

William H. Johnson, Portrait of Woman with Blue and White Striped Blouse, ca. 1940–42, tempera on paperboard, 71 × 56 cm. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

In this portrait, William H. Johnson combines poses reminiscent of Old Masters paintings with a expressive folk style.

Henri Matisse, Dame à la robe blanche (Woman in white), 1946, oil on canvas, canvas, 97 × 60 cm. Courtesy: Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections, gift of John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles; photograph: Rich Sanders, Des Moines, Iowa; Matisse © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, Dame à la robe blanche (Woman in white), 1946, oil on canvas, 97 × 60 cm. Courtesy: Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections, gift of John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles; photograph: Rich Sanders, Des Moines, Iowa; Matisse © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse worked with the model Madame Elvire Van Hyfte in at least four major paintings in his later years. 

Romare Bearden, Patchwork Quilt, 1970, cut-and-pasted cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 0.90 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, 1970. Art © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY.

Romare Bearden, Patchwork Quilt, 1970, cut-and-pasted cloth and paper with synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 0.90 x 1.2 m. Courtesy: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund, 1970. Art © 2018 Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artist's Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY.

Romare Bearden approached modernist aesthetics in a way that put African American subject matter at the centre of his practice.

Mickalene Thomas, Din, une très belle négresse #1 (Din, a very beautiful black woman #1), 2012, rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 2.6 × 2.1 m. Courtesy:  Jiménez-Colón Collection, Ponce, PR. © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Mickalene Thomas, Din, une très belle négresse #1 (Din, a very beautiful black woman #1), 2012, rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 2.6 × 2.1 m. Courtesy:  Jiménez-Colón Collection, Ponce, PR. © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This recent work by New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas is based on popular twentieth-century images of black women in contemporary culture as well as drawing from a rich history of works made by previous generations of artists.

‘Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse’ runs at Musée D’Orsay from 26 March – 21 July
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