Body of Art - an extract of my work

Phaidon, 2015

Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826) painted this striking portrait shortly after France abolished slavery in 1794 and just before it was reinstated in 1802. At a time when racist attitudes prevailed and women had no political voice, the French artist’s choice of subject and its sympathetic treatment are subversive. Where previously the depiction of people of colour in art was mostly limited to serving as an exotic ‘other’, here the artist elevates the sitter, probably a former slave, to a subject of beauty in her own right.

Painted in a Neo-Classical style, the subject gazes with quiet dignity at the viewer. This affirmative portrayal of race by a woman painter, marginalised herself due to her gender, becomes an assertion of female identity in patriarchal France. Indeed, the fledgling feminist literature of the time drew parallels between slavery and female subjugation. There is, nevertheless, inherent inequality in the sitters semi-nude pose, which would not have been acceptable for a white woman of Benoist’s standing. Thus the black sitter’s body functions as an arena for empowerment and passive protest through the identification of Benoist, a white female artist from the moneyed class, with a nameless black servant.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of a Negress, 1800

Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm (31½ × 25½ in)

Musée du Louvre, Paris