An exhibition at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay centers on a black model named Laure in Édouard Manet’s Olympia and reinterrogates the role of black people in art history.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 51″ x 75″. Presented at the 1865 Salon. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, RF 644. Photo © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.
Around the time that Édouard Manet was painting Olympia, in 1863, a liberating politics was underway in France. Napoleon III had become so distracted with foreign affairs—handling the Second French Intervention in Mexico, breaking up a burgeoning Roman Republic in order to restore the Pope’s power, and making colonial conquests throughout Central Africa, Asia, and the South Seas—that he had little time to resist many of the political pressures back home. And so he was actually carrying out some of the promises he’d made in the run-up to his Second Empire coronation, such as reducing media censorship and allowing workers to strike. By 1870, Napoleon III, under the pressure of the Liberals, even assented to a parliamentary legislature in France, which would ultimately serve as the basis of the Third Republic.
In the late nineteenth century, Paris began to seem like an integrated and relatively racially equitable city. After the 1848 Revolution, slavery had been abolished in France’s territorial colonies; Caribbean people moved en masse to the French capital. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, and his father, Thomas-Alexandre—who was one of the most important black military men in European history—were viewed as unassailably prominent members of French society. Racism, of course, still existed, even at the highest levels of government: in 1884, Jules Ferry, who served as both prime minister and as president of the senate, was espousing his eugenics-based racism, saying things like, “The higher races have a right over the lower races … a duty to civilize the inferior races.” But for a moment, the scene seemed to be set for a fresh form of liberty and relative equality.
Gustave Le Gray, Portrait d’Alexandre Dumas en costume russe, 1859, oval proof laminated on gray paper, itself laminated on cardboard, 10″ x 7 1/2″. Paris, Musée d’Orsay, PHO 1986 11. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / image RMN-GP.
Art, naturally, was both driver and recipient. The poet Charles Baudelaire was dating Jeanne Duval, a French Haitian actress so beautiful she was often called the Black Venus and was painted by Manet. Manet, meanwhile, was fashioning himself as a recorder of the contemporary social scene. A number of his paintings depicted the black people who had immigrated to the northern neighborhoods of Paris. In his studio notebook, he described the black maid whom he painted standing next to the lounging white prostitute in Olympia and the black caregiver in his Children in the Tuileries Garden (1862) as “Laure, très belle négresse, rue Vintimille, 11, 3éme étage.” Manet’s depiction of Laure wasn’t exoticized—not the kind of nude caricature that had been standard of European depictions of black women. Instead, with her voguish neckline and bouquet of flowers, Laure modeled a typically “white role,” as a clerk in a department store or a server at a café. Also: whereas in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (ca. 1532), a clear forerunner of Olympia, the maid, who is white, is turned away from the nude, lounging women in the foreground; in Olympia, Laure is just as much a part of the scene, in both the amount of the canvas she takes up and her foregrounded placement. Read More