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April 3, 2019 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Every student of art history will at some point come across Édouard Manet’s Olympia (Wikipedia), a painting widely considered as a foundational work of modern art. Denise Murrell recalls the moment the lecture slide first flashed up on the screen when she was a graduate student at Columbia. “My heart started beating a little bit faster,” Murrell says.... But her professor focused on the white nude, the prostitute Olympia, and didn't mention the black servant at all. That motivated Murrell to learn about the black figure in the painting. A Student Thesis Has Become a Groundbreaking Show About How Black People Have Been Pictured Across Art History (Art News), which is now an exhibit at Musée d'Orsay in Paris, where French masterpieces are renamed after black subjects (CNN).

Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery Debuts "Posing Modernity," an Exhibition on The Evolution of Black Women Models in Art (Nadja Sayej for The Guardian, via Good Black News, October 22, 2018)
In 1863, the French artist Édouard Manet painted Olympia, a reclining nude prostitute, shedding a scandalous light on Parisian brothel culture. But while much of the attention has been on the white model in the painting, Victorine Meurent, the black model beside her, Laure, has been largely overlooked by art historians.

“People have told me, ‘It’s not that I didn’t see the black maid in the painting, I just didn’t know what to say about her’,” said the curator Denise Murrell. “I always felt she is presented in a more stronger light than maids usually are, and I wondered what could be said about her, even though art history said very little.”

This one painting then sparked the exhibition which Murrell has curated, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, opening at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in New York on 24 October.

From photography to painting and sculpture, as well as film and print correspondence, this exhibit traces how the black figure has been key to the development of modern art over the past 150 years. Many of the artists here bring to light much of what art history has ignored.
“Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today” - review of the Wallach Art Gallery exhibit, by Kaegan Sparks for Art in America Magazine.
In her 1992 polemic “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” (O'Grady's website), artist Lorraine O’Grady rebukes the historical use of black bodies as symbolic “chiaroscuro,” a device meant to throw whiteness into sharper relief. According to O’Grady, Western culture not only relegates black women to the margins of white femininity but also charges them with synthesizing a dialectic of deviance and nurturance: “Jezebel and Mammy, prostitute and female eunuch, the two-in-one.” What better incarnation of this historical violence than Manet’s Olympia, that scandalous cradle of modernist painting? Manet’s 1863 rendering of a Parisian prostitute in the pose of an odalisque accomplished at least two game-changing feats: it spotlighted a working-class sex worker, a fringe player in the economic and social order, and it inaugurated the paradigm of flatness in Western painting—an innovation staked on the lack of modeling of Olympia’s skin, whose cadaverous color was lampooned by contemporary critics. But what of her counterpart, the domestic worker, whose darker skin tones melted into the brothel’s lush background, equally advancing the painting’s proto-abstraction?

“Posing Modernity,” an interventionist exhibition curated by art historian Denise Murrell, proposed a counter-narrative of modernism rooted in the legacy of Laure, the model for the black maid in Manet’s magnum opus. Tracing an episodic history from mid-nineteenth-century Paris to the Harlem Renaissance to the postwar art of the African diaspora, Murrell’s three-part exhibition—now on view in an expanded version at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay—framed the figuration of black women as integral to the development of modern art. As Murrell documents, after France’s final abolition of slavery in 1848, newly emancipated black people, often Antillean migrants, became an increasingly visible part of the everyday urban life that Charles Baudelaire legendarily endorsed as the new domain of art in 1863. The diligent social art history of “Posing Modernity” gave names to anonymous models, often illuminating their roles as nannies or nightlife performers in an evolving black proletariat.

The exhibition’s first and strongest segment pivoted around Olympia (shown in reproduction at the Wallach) and Manet’s two other portrayals of Laure (Wikipedia): the first in Children in the Tuileries Gardens (1861–62) (RISD Museum), a vernacular scene featuring nursemaids and their charges in public gardens; and the second in a remarkable portrait titled La négresse (Portrait of Laure), 1863 (Wikipedia). The consistency of a single sitter across these works foregrounded the artist’s crucial negotiation of individual versus type in his paintings of the 1860s. Consequential in modernism’s break with established genres of academic Salon painting, this problem also had particular implications for racialized subjects, as the exhibition demonstrated through contemporaneous orientalist scenes, ethnographic photography, and racial caricatures from mass media.
More from Murrell on Olympia and Laure, in coverage of her initial Wallach Art Gallery exhibit: New Attention for Figures in the Background (Hilarie M. Sheets for the New York Times)
“This woman is in full view, but she’s invisible, ignored in the narrative,” said Ms. Murrell, whose 2014 dissertation plumbed what could be learned from this black figure. It is now the springboard for “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery through Feb. 10. “Would Manet really give all this pictorial space to someone he didn’t want us to pay attention to?”
“Part of what was radical about ‘Olympia’ was the way that he chose to portray this black woman,” Ms. Murrell said of the maid, who wears the plain, shapeless dress of the French proletariat. “She’s not bare-breasted or in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant,” typical of how black women were depicted in history paintings at the Paris salons.
Bringing the Background Into Focus (Harvard Business School | Alumni Stories) -- some more background on Denise Murrell's transition from her career on Wall Street to her passion for art and art history.
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Went to school for Art History. All of this looks like amazing reads, just not here at work. Thank you for this!
posted by theartandsound at 11:02 AM on April 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Wow, filthy light thief, this is a fantastic post, and I have put it at the top of my To Read list so I can fully attend to all those intriguing links. I've quickly skimmed "French masterpieces are renamed after black subjects" and the Nadja Sayej article, and I'm looking forward to reading more over the next several days.

(And thanks for mentioning Good Black News, which I'd never seen before.)

This is fabulous. Thank you!
posted by kristi at 11:42 AM on April 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was fortunate to come across the catalogue for this show ( and but it immediately). Immediately took it home and
showed the image to my tiny mixed-raced daughter. So glad to hear more about the author's story and to see her international impact.
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 12:22 PM on April 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

How interesting. Glad this is getting the full treatment by some smart artists and critics.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:19 PM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I helped out some with the slide library used by our art history department when they still used actual slides. There were more copies of Olympia than any other image in the collection. The work was referenced in practically every course in the department. Great to see new scholarship and fresh thinking on this iconic staple of the canon.
posted by St. Oops at 2:20 PM on April 3, 2019

Love this, thank you so much for posting. I've been looking at Laure for years without ever knowing her name.
posted by Cuke at 8:05 PM on April 3, 2019

I have not read this article yet but just the pullquote in the FPP has left me, literally, a little bit short of breath and light-headed. I love this. I love it a lot.

I will get around to reading it in a while, and thanks for posting this.
posted by hippybear at 6:37 AM on April 4, 2019

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