Dunes noires (LITTERAIRE) (French Edition)
I submit that one half of the individuals in a society have not the right to deprive that other half of its inalienable right to express its own desires. Let us free ourselves at once of the prejudice of sex just as we did of the prejudice against the color of the negro. Feminists of the period—both male and female—used arguments of defense that closely paralleled those used by the Amis des Noirs.
One such argument was that women were human beings who shared in the natural rights of man. Another was that women, like blacks, once freed could fight for France and contribute socially and economically in the name of patriots. Some of these arguments resulted in an ironic backlash. In order to assert that women were just as patriotic as men, feminists often "conceded in affirming their biological role as childbearers and as the mothers of all citizens. Benoist understood the relation between misogyny at home and the exploitation of colonial slaves abroad.
Her subject matter carries serious political and moral implications.
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Taking into account the artist's indoctrination into the idea of painting as a socializing act for women in her position, Benoist foregrounded a discursive posture in relation to gender and slavery that was simultaneously less and more eroticized in order to appeal to a heterosexual male audience through which her standing as a professional painter was determined. Her portrait provokes an ethnographic and erotically objectifying subtext—the dynamics of which operate under a veil of allegory, classicizing, and aestheticizing.
The black woman's headwrap and partial nudity are signs that mark her as different from white womanhood. As well, they constitute visible markers of white woman's command over black woman's labor.
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By focusing on the black woman's corporality and by juxtaposing dark skin with white cloth, Benoist has directed attention to black woman's otherness in the realm of the visual, the physical, and the social. Art historian Griselda Pollock has outlined the history and semiotic significance of the headwrap in context of the formulaic appearance of black women in European visualizations of Orientalist and Africanist fantasy. She has described the headwrap as "a highly specific signifier. Benoist's portrait not only addresses the "fact" of French historical participation in slavery and abolition, but it also engages a visuality in which the complications of race, class, and gender get produced, reproduced, and circulated within those historical phenomena.
"C'est vraiment le type d'objet qu'on espère trouver à chaque fois dans une succession"
By "visuality," I refer to the ways in which discursive concepts and codes such as race get caught up and circulated within the domain of the visual. Within the complicated structure of Western patriarchy and political economies, vision and visuality are multiple—that is, they can be "hetero- and homo-sexualist, gendered, racist, racial, etc. Even though Benoist's painting is aesthetically successful and technically proficient, and although her work constituted an attempt "to locate [herself through] an African woman [as surrogate] in political [and artistic] modernity," the ultimate result was, I believe, a political failure.
While attempting to negotiate the scientific and aesthetic codes associated with the depiction of blacks and women, Benoist ended by catering to the status quo desires of men. Her attempt to create a historical and moral style on combined feminine and masculine terms succumbed to the masculinist mode and formal strategies she employed. Benoist's portrait is part of high culture that is positioned against feminism. High culture tends to exclude the knowledge of women artists produced within feminism, and also works in a phallocentric system of signification in which woman, whether white or black, is reduced to a sign within the discourse on masculinity.
See Ann S. Benoist was forced to abandon her career because her husband received from the restored Bourbon government a high profile appointment. Her mother was concerned about her daughter's professional and personal persona and put pressure on her to quit painting. Art historian Gen Doy points out that Benoist was a victim of a bourgeois ideology that maintained that women should not have a public presence in French cultural life.
As a result, many women were dissuaded from starting a career as an artist.
See Doy, Women and Visual Culture ,, p. For example, as recently as , the British art historian Hugh Honour saw Benoist's portrait as "the most beautiful portrait of a black woman ever painted. All persons of African descent were viewed as distinctly non-French. When represented in art, blacks were typically and immediately classed into the de-personalized category of "exotic" or "oriental. On the visual and theoretical dynamics of racial obfuscation and periodic inclusion in works of high modernism and popular culture in the late nineteenth-century, see James Smalls, "'Race' As Spectacle in Late-Nineteenth-Century French Art and Popular Culture," French Historical Studies 26, no.
Other biographical details of the life of Benoist are also derived from Ballot, Because he was a member of the royal cabinet, Benoist's father was, on one occasion, brought before a police board of inquiry to ascertain how much his daughter was involved in royalist plots to save the royal family from execution. Benoist herself was questioned and released, for the police were really more interested in the affairs of her husband. For more than a year Benoist was constantly followed and put under surveillance by the police, see Ballot, , p. Prior to the temporary abolition of slavery in , the laws governing the legal status of colonial slaves brought onto French soil was ambiguous.
However, once on continental French soil, a slave's status changed to that of servant and he or she could legally petition for liberty. For a history of the social status and legal complexities of slaves brought into France proper during the late eighteenth century, see Shelby T. Harris and Nochlin, , p. The only monograph dedicated to Benoist and her work is by Ballot, Margaret A. For an expanded discussion of this painting in the context of the interests and social status of nineteenth-century women artists, see Doy, Women and Visual Culture ,, pp.
I borrow this idea from Tamar Garb who used it in the context of the much later images of masculinity produced by Gustave Caillebotte. During the nineteenth century, the definitions of these terms, along with the designations "esclave slave " and "noir Black ," tended to shift according to historical and political circumstances. Girodet," Res 26 Autumn , pp.
Also see Weston, " Portrait du citoyen Belley ", , pp. For Belley's biography and politically active significance in postrevolutionary France, see Weston, "Representing the Right to Represent", Also see Schmidt-Linsenhoff, , pp.
Barthes' evacuation thesis was also a "critique of the ideology of mastery, for which the visual field was seen as the predominant site," see Jacqueline Rose, "Sexuality and Vision: Some Questions," in Hal Foster, ed. Art historian Griselda Pollock has chimed in on this very point in accusing modern feminist scholars of putting black women through the ordeal of display as a result of their the feminists' desire, indeed need, to "excavate a history of women artists" as a means to secure "the cause of European women's creativity.
Maxim Silverman, ed. See Pollock, , In the French colonial and national context, the notion that race was a biological fact was fueled by society's belief in the ability of science to contribute to social and material progress and, therefore, to national greatness. Gen Doy has pointed out that the use of the term noirceur black horror to describe the sitter has multiple meanings including aversion to blackness, melancholy, viciousness, and horror.
See Doy, Women and Visual Culture , , p. In this regard, Doy gives significant meaning to Benoist's choice of palette in suggesting that the dominant colors used intentionally recall the tricolor. This is an observation that adds to the notion of Benoist's attempt to integrate at least rhetorically black people into the corps politique of the French nation. This assertion is in response to Hugh Honour's unapologetic assessment that "there is not the least suggestion of servitude in the painting.
The black woman is completely at her ease in this warmly humane and noble image. Few, if any, European images of non-Europeans are as calmly and clear-sightedly objective.
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See J. Boutard [M. Mary D. Gill Perry and Michael Rossington, eds. Admission to David's studio was highly competitive, and David may have accepted Benoist as a gesture of defiance, since the king had declared, in , that women artists were not to be trained in the Louvre. See Harris and Nochlin, , p.
Benoist lived at the Louvre through and was later awarded an apartment and studio in the Maison d'Angivillers. See Paris, Archives nationales F13 , no. Nonetheless, David was told by the Comte d'Angiviller, in , that he had to send away his female students. See Sheriff, , pp. As well, the palette of each work is supposedly loaded with color symbolism—the David, in reference to the republican cockade and the sitter's impending execution; the Benoist, in reference to the French tricolor.
See Ballot, , p. He was editor of the conservative newspapers La Quotidenne and the Mercure de France from to He was also secretary to general Leclerc in Saint Domingue, and so his views of blacks were biased. On the gendered nature of the French Revolution and neoclassicism, see Joan B. My italics. See Ballot, , pp. Quoted in Doy, Women and Visual Culture , , p.
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For an engaging discussion of how women artists, writers, and activists in the revolutionary period constructed the female body and related it to experiences in the male-reserved public realm, see Dorinda Outram, The Body and the French Revolution New Haven: Yale University Press, Outram, , p. Most of the literature in this area focuses on working class women organized into political clubs. There has been scant inquiry into the reactions and deeds of the aristocratic elite and non-activist women. Melzer and Leslie Rabine, eds.