(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
One of the most powerful critiques of slavery during the 19th century is condensed in the form of a portraitlike bust of a black woman. Although her arms and chest are bound by ropes, her head turns freely toward an unseen point. Escape from the immobile state of her body is further implied by her waving hair and upwardly angled glance. Inscribed on the base of the bust is this terse, provocative phrase: Pourquoi naître esclave (“Why born a slave?”).
The bust is a masterpiece of mid-19th-century French sculpture, coming at the end of the long, distinguished career of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and embodying as well his countrymen’s even longer involvement with slavery. A review of the historical circumstances of its creation can provide some clarification into its meaning both then and now.
In 1867 Carpeaux, a sculptor as controversial as he was celebrated, received a major public commission from the city of Paris. He was to fashion a monumental fountain for the Luxembourg Gardens, a verdant expanse in the historic center of Paris. The centerpiece of the monument featured a bronze group of the four continents of the world — Africa, America, Asia and Europe — holding aloft the sphere of the heavens.
The artist quickly found a model for the figure of Africa, a woman who, according to some sources, had posed for a bust by another sculptor nearly 20 years earlier. Carpeaux’s evocation of her remarkable features emerged at an early stage of the creative process of the fountain in which a static design was transformed by dynamic, twisting movement. The monument itself was installed in the Luxembourg Gardens in 1874, while the bust of the slave woman already existed by 1868. In one crucial aspect, the bust of the black woman differs from the representation of Africa on the fountain. In the bust the woman is clearly still in a state of bondage, whereas on the monument, only a broken chain lies around her ankle.
A carefully worked marble bust of this figure was exhibited the next year (although Carpeaux would go on to produce many copies in a variety of materials) at the annual Paris Salon, the proving ground of official taste in the visual arts. In the official catalog of the Salon, this work is listed simply as “Negresse.” The bust was not only favorably received but was also purchased by the French head of state Emperor Napoleon III, who installed it in one of his residences. Like the monument that had inspired it, this remarkable piece found a place in the nexus of art and politics embodied by the Second Empire.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.