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.

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

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.

Partly in response to such unexpected occurrences, the royal government introduced tighter controls over the entry of slaves into the country. By 1777, just two years before Houdon’s fountain group was set up, only duly registered freedmen from the colonies could legally remain in the country. All other blacks, even freedmen arriving after this date, were to be deported to the colonies. Those remaining were required to carry identity cards and were forbidden to take part in interracial marriages. Such regulations were often ignored, however, and so the woman depicted in this bust could have many identities. She could be slave or free, recently arrived or protected by the law of 1777.

Regardless of these possibilities, her status would soon change dramatically. In 1794, during the radical phase of the French Revolution, slavery was universally abolished in French territory. In recognition of this epochal event, Houdon added an inscription to the base of the bust, still in his studio: “Restored to Liberty and Equality by the National Convention.” In this context the young woman, depicted as a servant in the fountain group and perhaps a slave in actual fact, can be viewed as directing her gaze to a new object of contemplation, the right of self-determination.

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.