Since 1865, when Édouard Manet's painting "Olympia" debuted in Paris, all eyes have been focused on the reclining nude gazing directly out at the viewer.
"It was very controversial," said curator Denise Murrell. "This aspect of everyday life that has always been with us, the oldest profession, and this was something that was considered to be poor taste. It should be kept part of, you know, the private domain."
As Murrell notes, there are two women in the painting: "One is white, and that is what most of the art historical narrative is about. But the other is black."
At a recent New York exhibition, based on Murrell's doctoral dissertation, she assembled artwork from Manet to Matisse to African-American artists like Romare Bearden and Laura Wheeler Waring to illustrate the role of black models in modern art, starting with the black maid from "Olympia."
"So, what is Manet intending to say, even though art historians are not saying very much? I believe he intended for us to pay attention," Murrell said. "This material is not hidden, just like the model. She's in plain view, but she's made invisible by the lack of historical interest."
But In Manet's own notebook, Murrell found the model's name: Laure, whom he described as a tres belle negresse – a very beautiful black woman.
"What Manet does is bring this figure into the present moment and say that French society is an interracial society, that people of color are a part of modern France," Murrell said.
Manet would paint Laure twice more, in "Portrait of Laure" and in "Children in the Tuileries Gardens."
The fourth Manet painting to feature a black female model was of the celebrated French poet Charles Baudelaire's mistress, Jeanne Duval, a biracial actress. "I think Manet's captured her as she was described by Baudelaire's biographer at the time, 'A colored girl, tall, carried herself like a queen,'" said Murrell.
The exhibition goes on to show Manet's influence on his contemporaries, like Frédéric Bazille, and artists from the Harlem Renaissance, such as William H. Johnson, Ernest Crichlow and Charles Alston.
Murrell said, "When we look at the Harlem Renaissance artists working in the 1920s, often after having spent time in Europe, they came back to Harlem, to Chicago, to black cities being formed in America, and they portrayed every scene of modern life as well."
Henri Matisse is one of many European artists who drew inspiration from Harlem. Murrell said, "Matisse was visiting jazz clubs, he was seeing black theater. And he knew some of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. So, we see him a decade later back in France working with black models, sort of stripping away a lot of the markers of ethnicity, of race that have been typical of European portrayals of black women before."
And today, artist Mickalene Thomas pays homage to Manet in her work, describing the model in one of her own paintings as tres belle negresse, directly citing Manet's description of Laure.
At her Brooklyn studio, Thomas explained to correspondent Nancy Giles it's that validation – demanding to be seen – that is part of what Manet intended by including his black model in "Olympia": "It's about them looking out at you, and demanding to be seen, demanding the validation – Look at me, I'm here, I exist, I'm present.
"He wanted to talk about her. And that's why it does disjustice to the artist when you omit what they're doing, when you deliberately say, 'No, we're not gonna talk about that.'"
Which is why, for Thomas, this art is about more than just the past; it's also about the future.
She said, "For so long for me, in images that I would see at museums, I would think, why don't I see myself? We are part of this larger picture in culture. Why aren't we here in these spaces? That's why it's very important to make the work that I do, because I see what happens when young girls go to the museums and they see my work on the wall. They see themselves."
Denise Murrell's exhibit is now in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay, and she's hoping this new perspective on modern art will have a lasting legacy.
She told Giles, "We want to open up, first of all, the way we look at those works, because many of them do have portrayals of women of color. But we also want to introduce artists who have been marginalized – women artists, artists of color."
Thomas added, "You never know whose life you may transform, by just an image of recognition and representation."
For more info:
- Denise Murrell's exhibition, "Black models: From Géricault to Matisse," is at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris through July 21
- "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, New York City (exhibition closed)
- Exhibition catalogue: "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" by Denise Murrell (Yale University Press), in Hardcover format
- Artist Mickalene Thomas
Story produced by Kay Lim.