A Black French Woman Smiles at Freedom

Image of the Week: A sculptor captures the face of freedom in France just after slavery was universally abolished in French territory.

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Jean-Antoine Houdon, head of a Negress, probably 1781, patinated plaster. Musée Municipal, Soissons, France.

(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.

 A young black woman, her face timeless yet somehow familiar, looks down with a sideways glance, her lips parted in a faint smile. Her subtly animated face seems to move freely between reverie and bemusement, as if her gaze has just fallen on some particular point of engagement. Though her features are broadly treated, the head projects a penetrating effect of realism. We have before us the image of an actual though anonymous person, modeled from life by the great 18th-century French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in his Paris studio.

The piece was originally conceived as a bust and once extended below the neck to include the woman's bare shoulders, upper arms and breasts. During World War I it was reduced to its present form when the museum that was housing it was hit by German artillery fire. It is essentially a fragment of a fragment, an indirect survivor of one of Houdon's most ambitious explorations of the sculptural medium.

The bust itself is derived from the full-length figure of a black woman produced as part of the remarkable centerpiece of a garden fountain. Houdon had originally conceived the work as a royal commission in 1779, but when the arts commissioner of Louis XVI rejected it, the fountain was bought and set up in a sort of fashionable urban theme park near Paris created by the king's cousin Philippe, the future duke of Orleans.

Set within a basin surrounded by three steps, Figure of a Negress, cast in lead and painted black, poured water from a gilded jug over a seated nude woman carved from white marble. The black woman was presented as a bathing attendant, perhaps in the fanciful Turkish mode popular at the time. Sculptors had worked in variously colored materials before and had even represented black figures in dark stone, but the effect here must have been unique in its exploitation of delicate form and contrasting skin colors.

A telling play of opposites is set in motion by Houdon's innovative treatment of the subject: the formal distinction between the black and white races, the social and legal disparity between mistress and servant, and the contrasting postures of active labor and its passive reception.

Regrettably, the intriguing garden feature did not survive the French Revolution, when it was dismembered in reaction to the perceived frivolities of noble-class taste. Houdon produced the now-truncated bust a few years after the fountain was installed. He exhibited it as an independent work at the prestigious annual Paris Salon in 1781. A bronze copy that one of his pupils made later on preserves its original state.

 

This head, along with the fountain it recalls, is relevant for more than just its aesthetic qualities. It serves as a visual reference point for the emerging perception of blacks within French society during the 18th century. Given its clear portraitlike aspect, one naturally wonders what life was like for the model as a black woman living in a country committed to the practice of slavery.

The legal status of people of African descent living in the French colonies had been established by the notorious Code Noir, or Black Code, a body of law ratified by Louis XIV in 1685 to govern the treatment of slaves. Within France itself, however, the situation was less clear. As in England, there was a deeply entrenched, customary notion of the "free soil of the mother country, a concept inimical to the holding of slaves. The unavoidable circumstance of slaves brought to France by their colonial masters proved to be a divisive issue for the nation, and by the middle of the 18th century, some of these slaves were even able to sue successfully for their freedom.