Harvard Art Museums begin to address their racist, sexist history
September 1, 2019 8:43 AM   Subscribe

The project shifts which works are displayed side by side in the museums and changes, sometimes dramatically, the words on the walls alongside them. Since February, the museums have been working their way through the collections, rewriting the wall labels that accompany virtually all of their historical works with a mind to presenting a more inclusive, holistic view of art history. A John Singleton Copley portrait of Nicholas Boylston now describes him as having “amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.”
posted by nightrecordings (19 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I love the writer's barely concealed glee for calling out Odalisque as sexist and racist.

What a great project -- I hope the actual restructuring lives up to its positive depiction in this article.
posted by lazuli at 9:22 AM on September 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is fascinating, thank you for posting.
posted by dfm500 at 9:24 AM on September 1, 2019

I love the examples that they highlighted in the article. Simply stating that Boyleston was a slave trader does change how you view the painting. Giving the Haitian noblewoman a name and telling us something about her life does change how you view history - at least for a lot of visitors, I would assume.

It's a really good example of how the "artistic canon" isn't politically neutral and how attempts to describe it with neutral, uncritical language ("transatlantic slave trade") actually obscures the truth.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:49 AM on September 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

Article is paywalled for me. Even in incognito mode.
posted by dobbs at 11:03 AM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fresh staht for aht in Hahvahd yahd.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I Googled “Harvard art racism sexism” and was able to view the whole article from the first result

posted by Jesse the K at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Really interesting article...thank you for posting it.

One of the best conference sessions I ever attended was a “feminist, decolonizing museum hack” tour of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum with curator Dr. Evelyn Siegfried. She is an indigenous woman scholar who works to ensure the museum contextualizes both its exhibits and interpretive plaques within a feminist, decolonizing framework that acknowledges the sexist and racist ways indigenous peoples have been often been presented in museums.

(Outside the museum that day, folks were camped out on the lawn of the nearby Saskatchewan legislative buildings, protesting the lack of justice for Colten Boushie. Boushie was a 22 year old Cree man shot by a white farmer, Gerald Stanley, who was later acquitted by an all-white jury of second-degree murder and a lesser charge of manslaughter.)

I applaud the museums that are actively doing this kind of thing. It helps counter the racist narratives that black, indigenous and people of colour are still subject to every day.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:04 PM on September 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

As always, I should have known better than to read the comments on the article. *sigh*
posted by hydra77 at 12:17 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

An archival discovery in 2019 revealed that she is likely Anne Justine Angèle Delva de Dalmarie. A member of the Haitian aristocracy who had emigrated to France, she was famous in Paris and Nice for her lavish parties. The clothing of the man beside the countess suggests that he is her coachman, a sign of her affluence

That’s a bit thin for what turns out to be an interesting story. What archive was it and what exactly did it reveal?

Never mind. The internet reveals that she was born in 1857*, daughter (apparently) of Marie Magdeleine Louise Amélie Laure Vernard, whose dates and place of birth and marriage prove elusive.

Anne's father was Jean Pierre Damien de Delva, comte de Dalmarie (1803-1867), one of the first of the Haitian Imperial Nobility established by Faustin I in 1849. Among other posts, he was Special Envoy and Plenipotentiary Minister of Haiti to France. He died when she was ten and is buried at Montmartre.

Did she return to Haiti (was she even born in Haiti?) or stay in France? No idea. What is clear is that she would marry (pg 34) in 1890 at Croissy sur Seine to Raoul René Robert Troché, dramaturge of some note, good enough to earn him the Legion d’Honneur. Sadly, he would die in 1895. The last mention of her I find is her presence at her son’s wedding in 1907. I leave it to others to pick up the trail.

One likes to think that Raoul is the man of the folded arms. Who can say? Troche had a successful show in Paris in 1880, he could have taken a break and headed south. Lautrec was in Nice in 1880 picking up the craft and did other horsey paintings, possibly including Harvard's. The future couple would have been thirty and twenty three at the time.

*(Possibly in France, if the account of her half-sister Jeanne Marie Léonie Potiez aka Dr Marie Magnus, born in France in 1856, the illegitimate issue of the comte is true, which is more than I know. Amateur genealogy on line is rife with error. For that matter, so could some of the links provided. Again, I leave it to others, and if you can find a picture of Anne Justine, pray do share.)
posted by BWA at 12:59 PM on September 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

Sigh. Still getting paywalled, even with searches and multiple monitors.
posted by doctornemo at 4:12 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ack. I'm sorry, doctornemo and anyone else still hitting a paywall - I thought I had recovered the non-paywall URL from the website code but maybe not after all!

I have copy/pasted the contents of the article below:

CAMBRIDGE — On the wall at Harvard Art Museums, Kerry James Marshall and Nicolas Regnier sit shoulder to shoulder and centuries apart. But the idea, really, is to see them on the same level.

Marshall, now in his 60s, is the paterfamilias of African-American painting, with decades invested in depicting, over and over, scenes of black American life. Regnier, a 17th-century painter, comes from a lineage of European old masters. With equal parts determination and mastery, Marshall’s lifelong project has been to chip into a sealed canon dominated by Regnier and his kind. And finally, the cracks are showing.

At Harvard, the complex interplay between Marshall’s “Untitled,” a 2008 portrait of an ebony-skinned painter in his studio staring down the viewer from behind a palette thick with bright paint, and “Self-Portrait with an Easel,” a playful piece Regnier made some time between 1620 and 1625, speaks to a larger movement, both at Harvard and within the museum world itself, to break old cultural habits.

It is, to put it bluntly, an unabashed righting of wrongs — a repositioning of the museums’ collections amid rising sensitivities to the history of gender and race in art, and how they play out in our increasingly messy, divisive world.

In the midst of a new, full-blown chapter of the culture wars, the initiative arrives right on time.

The project shifts which works are displayed side by side in the museums and changes, sometimes dramatically, the words on the walls alongside them. Since February, the museums have been working their way through the collections, rewriting the wall labels that accompany virtually all of their historical works with a mind to presenting a more inclusive, holistic view of art history. Deeper, fuller truth is the absolute goal.

Enlisting a team of graduate fellows and PhD candidates, the curators approached their work as a form of redress: Labels, for example, that accompany a series of 18th-century portraits of the Boylston family — city founders, the archetype of the Boston Brahmins — by John Singleton Copley, the de facto court painter of the city’s rich, now describe how the family’s vast wealth was amassed largely through the slave trade.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “Odalisque,” from 1840, one of his greatest works, depicts a naked woman splayed on a bed, being attended to by a dark-skinned slave; the new label unpacks Ingres’s work, finally, as a heated fantasy of an exoticized east by a painter who had never been, and describes Ingres’s portrayal of the woman as a “sexual prize.” A small oil painting by Toulouse Lautrec from 1881, of a black woman in frilly finery waving from a horse-drawn carriage, finally calls her by name: Anne Justine Angèle Delva de Dalmarie, a member of the Haitian aristocracy who emigrated to France. The painting’s title is, ambiguously, “The Black Countess.” The original label mentioned her not at all, though she’s the work’s central figure. Lautrec never identified her, and the decades of scholarship that followed never bothered to, either — until now.

The project lays bare the selective truth beneath long-held textbook narratives, rife with exclusions designed by a conquering class with blood on its hands. But it also deepens a museumgoer’s experience of art and of history both. Along the way, artists like Marshall take their rightful place in an arc from which they were deliberately excluded.

Harvard Art Museums, like their institutional peers all over the world, have also been shifting the stories they tell, pushing back against the rigid categories that defined art scholarship for a century or more. Casting Marshall and Regnier as a conversation between equals would have been museum-world heresy not so long ago. With fiery rhetoric around inclusion and equity now exploding all over the world — and nowhere more than in the United States — it’s time to choose a side.

And Harvard has, very much in its own way. Where other museums have seized the moment for a near-total reset, the Harvard Art Museums have stressed subtle, almost surgical interventions. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, director Christopher Bedford announced last year that it would be selling off some of its major works by well-known artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to fund-raise for acquisitions of works by women and people of color. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been shut down since June to wipe its own slate clean and reinstall its entire collection with a mind to the same kind of inclusiveness (it reopens Oct. 21).

But the Harvard project is no small thing for a museum functioning within a university long hesitant to acknowledge its connections to the uglier parts of American history. Harvard’s earliest presidents had slaves living and working in their residences, a fact publicly acknowledged by the school only in 2016, when a plaque was unveiled in their memory on campus. The same year, under student pressure, the law school abandoned its coat of arms, which was adopted to honor the Royalls, one of the school’s founding families who were also prominent slaveholders. Louis Agassiz, a celebrated 19th-century Harvard zoologist, has been disavowed by his field for advancing racist theories concerning the intellectual inferiority of blacks, though his family name still appears prominently throughout campus.

Museums, of course, were designed with exclusivity built in: by wealthy Europeans, first for their peers and then the larger European public. It was an idea imported to the colonies with particular zeal, used to enforce the position of the ruling class: Museums displayed European culture as the paragon of refinement, with other cultures — many of them conquered — as primitive subjects of anthropological study.

On a continent still smoldering with the outright genocide of indigenous peoples and the brisk, brutal trade of Africans in bondage, museums became walled fortresses of a narrow version of acceptable history. Unraveling that tight, brutal tale to reveal broader, messier truths, however uncomfortable, is now every museum’s task. Given the divisive rhetoric that now routinely flows from the country’s highest offices, that task has become an urgent one.

At Harvard, Ethan Lasser, the museums’ head of European and American art, and chief curator Soyoung Lee have picked their spots, and carefully, for their first public gestures toward addressing the museums’ generational blind spots. They’re designed for maximum impact. A Copley portrait of Nicholas Boylston now describes him as having “amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.” Boylston, surrounded in the picture by silken finery — as he would have demanded — rests an arm on a thick ledger book; a tall ship can be seen in the bay out the window.

The old label described the fact of his trade not at all; made explicit, the picture changes completely. Lasser explained how, in this kind of portraiture, a figure might pose with the Bible or a scholarly tome. Boylston chose a business ledger — indicative, maybe, of the Brahmin’s true form of devotion. The book would have been filled, one imagines, with the names of African people moved as cargo. The ship was another representation of that cargo — again, requested by Boylston — as the source of his wealth.

It lays bare a reality the city was long reticent to address. “Our Colonial revisionist idea that the wealthy merchant class here was trading principally in molasses and rum are rose-colored,” Lasser said. “When you look at the slavery database, you see that slave trading was the industry in Boston in the 18th century, and that Boylston was a leading player. We don’t like Boston to be part of that story — there’s been a real resistance to that story. We like to talk about Frederick Douglass and abolitionism here, but less the other side of it.”

Lasser looks back toward the painting, and the small, dark ship plying the waves. “As a viewer in the 18th century, you would have to know what this was,” he said. “Copley wants us to know this. So does Boylston. It’s important to call out, because he wasn’t judged for it.”

Each label requires intensive research and care to be both correct and not overly blunt. Facts, in this climate, need to be unassailable, which makes the ongoing rollout slow work. More labels will be coming, Lasser and Lee said, including those that reconsider Asian and Native American culture in the context of a broader view of American art.

Just as important as the words are the stories the works are starting tell, newly side by side. It’s not a coincidence that in the same room as the Copleys, you’ll find a large portrait of George Washington, also an owner of slaves, or that in the middle of the space, you’ll see a wampum belt — Native American craft used as currency, as well as documentation for treaties — not far from a large painting by Washington Allston, an American painter whose fantasy landscapes of the North American wilds were often populated by white goddesses. (The connection will be made clearer in the fall, Lasser said, when Native American artist Edgar Heap of Birds arrives in the space to confront Allston directly.)

Harvard’s project takes on the old histories baked into its collections with the perspective our moment demands, but it also leaves space for new stories to unfold. One, a portrait by New Orleans painter Julien Hudson, opens a channel to a neglected vision of America. Its subject, a young woman in a white gown, hair pulled neatly back, poses in front of a misty swamp at dusk. She’s not named, but that’s not the only ambiguous thing about her.
With her big brown eyes and olive skin, she appears Hispanic, Native American, or maybe part black. Hudson, the son of a white New Orleanian and a freed black slave, knew this world by heart. A gifted young artist among the vibrant antebellum world of New Orleans’s free people of color, Hudson was sponsored by the wealthy in his community — some black, some mixed race, some white — to study painting in France alongside Abel de Pujol, a student of Jacques-Louis David.

He came home to paint his community. This young woman was among them. Hung here alongside the great works of French romantic painters, she’s an outlier, a radically fresh amendment to a shopworn tale. In many ways, she is New Orleans, and so much more — a portrait of another America rarely seen, and surely not on museum walls. If you can describe Harvard’s project here as anything, it’s this: the conjuring of another history, no less true, struggling for too long to be heard.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:18 PM on September 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

Thanks, nightrecordings. This is a fascinating post!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:31 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Again, I leave it to others, and if you can find a picture of Anne Justine, pray do share.

I'll bite.

Angèle Delva de Dalmarie (let's forget about the "Anne Justine") married Raoul Toché on 6 September 1890. Their son René had been born out of wedlock 6 years before. They had a home in Paris and another in Croissy, a picturesque house with a view on the Seine, built in 1886 in the "anglo-normand" style that was fashionable at the time (it's still there).

Toché, at 40, was a succesfull playwright and minor celebrity (his death was even reported in the New York Times!). He and his wife were famous for throwing night-long parties during the summers for their friends, a "crazy troupe of Parisians" that included writers and actors of the Tout-Paris. A local journal called Angèle an "original black countess" though she was also known more bluntly as "la négresse". Racism was never far away: fellow librettist Albert Vanloo, in his memoirs, remembers that Toché had married "a quite gentle mulatto, and many still remember her lively eyes and her appearance of a pretty little pet monkey". He goes on with a "funny" anecdote: one day, Angèle had a fight with an actress (also named Angèle!). When she said that she would report what happened to Raoul, the actress told her to "use the trees" (source). The marriage was later described as unhappy: both were big spenders and fought "ceaselessly". The same source claims that before her marriage Angèle was "well known in Paris as the Comtesse Peigègre (?)" and that her "fantasy" had already made her spend part her fortune (source). The name "Peigègre" doesn't show up anywhere.

Tragedy struck on 18 January 1895. The day before, Raoul told Angèle that he had been mounting huge gambling debts for the past 5 years, losing as much as 100,000 F in a single day. He had mortgaged (illegally) a joint family property and was pursued by usurers. Raoul took a train to Chantilly, posted letters to several people, including Angèle, telling them where to find his body, and shot himself in the Étang de la Reine-Blanche (the White Queen Pond) (source). In the morning, after receiving the letter, Angèle went to the Gendarmerie of Chantilly and she and the gendarmes found the body lying in the pond (source). There's a picture of the gendarmes fishing out Raoul from the pond (and therefore possibly of Angèle, who was there) that was published in L'Illustration n°2709, 26 January 1895 but it's not freely available on the internet. In press interviews published in the following days, she describes her husband as the innocent victim of blackmailers and loan sharks (source). Strangely, she isn't mentioned in a court decision concerning the future of her 9-year old son: a family council named Gaston Serpette, another famous author, as René's tutor (source). The following year, Angèle tried to get back the 200,000 F she had brought as a dowery but lost in court. She got her 10,000 F of jewels back though (source). In 1896, composer Paul Delmet wrote and dedicated a song to her, the Stances à Manon.

As far as the internet is concerned, Angèle Delva, known as Madame Raoul Toché or Madame Veuve Raoul Toché, only resurfaced in 1907 in Brazil (she was 50 at the time), where she spent several months giving literary conferences. She received a warm welcome by the local press, who described her as "one of the most interesting Parisian literati", "collaborator of a great number of journals, whose fine talent has earned from the European public the most obvious evidence of sympathy" (source). Another paper called her "a lady who allies to an unforeseen intelligence an uncommon acuity of observation". She learned Portuguese during that time, enough to talk politics and collect information about the coffee industry and other "new industries", information that she was apparently supposed to bring back to the French ministry of colonies. In a brief interview, she says nice things about Brazil as a country with a promising future (Want to know the first word I learned in Brazil? Tomorrow ! And the second? Hope!) (source).

However, Carmen Dolores (1852-1910), a famous journalist who was a feminist and activist for women's rights, was not impressed by the way "mme. Raoul Toché" was received in Brazil. Brazilian men, she wrote, could only see two kinds of women: "old ones only good to produce sons" and "eye-catching pretty girls". Delva, Dolores says, "was neither of the two, just a hardworking and educated woman who wants to earn her bread", so the Brazilians treated her poorly. There is no mention of her race in the Brazilian press, except one thing: several journalists nicknamed her "Rarahu", after the 14-year old Tahitian girl that French Navy officer and celebrity writer Pierre Loti married in 1872 and later wrote about in The marriage of Loti (Loti wrote three international best-sellers about his exotic teenage brides: the Japanese one was one of the models for Mrs Butterfly).

Brazilians of German origins did not welcome Angèle Delva. In December 1907, the Deustche Zeitung, a German-language Brazilian newspaper, accused her of "stealing from the federal and state coffers" (source) and of causing a "Doumer epidemic" (Paul Doumer was the French president). Delva was not only French, but she toured in Brazil with another French intellectual, the political journalist Eugène Destez. Destez, born in 1857, had been expelled from Alsace by German authorities (Alsace had been captured in 1871) and wrote Germany-hating articles in the popular press. Destez, however, had another side: while as much a colonialist as anyone else in France at the time, he also wrote about the rights of indigenous and/or black people, for instance in this 1920 article about US black soldiers or his defense of a Malagasy musician.

Angèle Delva left Brazil at they end of July 1907, possibly so that she could attend the marriage of her son René in September. René Toché would have a successful career in show business as a owner and director of concert halls. Angèle Delva's life after that is little known. In August 1914, Angèle's mother died in Paris at 85. In December 1915, Angèle, who owned the rights of her husband's plays, wrote a harsh letter to von Bissing, the military commander in Brussels, after the Germans translated and then showed a play of Raoul Toché (who had been fighting the "German hordes" in 1870). She asked the Germans to send her the proceeds of the shows so that she could spend it on monument to British war hero Edith Cavell. The French press called her "a good French woman" and considered her patriotic gesture as "elegant, witty, and showing a very French swagger" (source).

On 21 February 1918, she married Eugène Destez, the man she had toured Brazil with 11 years before, in a private ceremony in Auvers sur Oise. Both were 61 (source). Destez died in Paris on 19 January 1932 but there is no mention of his wife (source). In 1935, a person named "Madame Eugène Destez-Blet" was credited as the lyricist of the opéra comique "Pas de fumée sans feu".

And still no picture of her.
posted by elgilito at 9:35 AM on September 2, 2019 [13 favorites]

Wow, elgilito. Thank you so much!
posted by lazuli at 9:48 AM on September 2, 2019

And also thank you to BWA!
posted by lazuli at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2019

Thank you, nightrecordings.
posted by doctornemo at 10:19 AM on September 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I tried tracking down that photo in L'Illustration and I think I've found it: try this link and, at the top of the results ("19 résultats dans les pages"), click on number 8. The thumbnail looks like two guys fishing someone out of a pond, with a woman in the background. It seems to be a drawing rather than a photo but it's hard to tell. It's 19 Euros if someone wants to buy it.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:58 AM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks, that's the one! Here is a (very) slightly bigger version. Unfortunately one must pay two months of subscription (so 38 €) to get it...

Here's some additional information about Angèle Delva's life before she married Toché:

- Her first marriage was on 3 December 1873 (at 16) to a rather colourful character, Raymond (de) Peiger, a Hungarian count and mining engineer born in 1844. They had a daughter, Henriette de Peiger, the following year. In 1870-1871, Raymond/Reimundo/Raymundo had been hired to build roads in Ecuador. He went to the USA and then to Paris, where he started an chemical company and probably married Angèle. In 1880, he returned to Ecuador to manage a gold mine, but got involved in the insurgency against dictator Veintimilla and was killed in a battle in Quito in January 1883. His French business was sold in absentia.

- While her husband was a revolution leader in Ecuador, Angèle was in France. She was known as Comtesse Peiger (with various spellings: Pegere, Peeger etc.). In 1881, not only she was painted by Lautrec in Nice, but she was involved in a small scandal in the same city: with her "inseparable friend" Laure Heyman (also Hayman, Haymann etc.) and dragoon officer Adrien de Villiers (who had been her lover before), she was attending a performance of Offenbach's opéra Belle Lurette (co-written by Raoul Toché) when a former lover of de Villiers came in their private box and threw a bottle of sulfuric acid on him. De Villiers got acid on his face and the "comtesse Peige" and Heyman suffered slight burns. Laure Heyman was a well-known courtesan and the model for Odette de Crécy in Proust's Rememberance of Things Past. In fact, when describing the scene, the newspapers stop short of calling both women prostitutes ("cute and notorious girls"). Angèle is called a "little Venus of the nicest black" (Hayman is described as "blonde" for contrast) and the comedic description is misogynistic: both women remove their burned clothes in public, and, while Angèle washes the acid off in a basin, Laure does the same by putting her head in a toilet bowl. One week later, they were seen together at the Nice Carnival.

- Angèle Delva shows up as "Mimi Pegère" in the infamous book "The pretty women of Paris: their names and addresses, qualities and faults, being a complete directory or guide to pleasure for visitors to the gay city", published anonymously in English in 1883. In this listing of Parisian prostitutes, she appears as the lover of Laure Heyman and the book claims that, like other courtesans, they were doing lesbian shows for their customers: "It is a glorious sight to see the fair Laure locked in the serpentine embrace of the lecherous little Sappho, who is as black as coal, being a native of Haiti."

- In November 1890, Angèle Delva, now Mme Raoul Toché, married her daughter Henriette (then 17) to a Spanish banker named Jean de la Piedra. Henriette had a daughter the following year, but the name of the father (Jean André Abraham, 40, also a banker) is different.

I don't have the time to add sources right now, but I'll probably turn this into a proper document at one point.
posted by elgilito at 4:10 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Someone really needs to write a book about her.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:53 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

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