How a Black Wise Man’s Pious Act Relates to Slavery

Image of the Week: In a second version of the Adoration of the Magi, a submissive gesture alludes to the abolitionist movement taking place in Europe. 

Alexandre-François Caminade, Adoration of the Magi, 1831. Oil on canvas, 287 by 475 cm.
Alexandre-François Caminade, Adoration of the Magi, 1831. Oil on canvas, 287 by 475 cm. St. Etienne-du-Mont, Paris

One of the most striking aspects of Caminade’s Adoration of the Magi is the novel placement of the black king within the group. He does not stand aligned with the others, as is usually the case, but throws himself before the Christ child just as the elderly magus offers his gift. This compositional innovation introduces an intriguing alternative interpretation of the age-old theme. The usual sequence of the kings’ obeisance, arranged in order of age, seems supplanted here by the black king’s act of spontaneous recognition of the divine presence before him. The traditional protocol has been ignored, though as rendered here, it is in no way disruptive.

The significance of the black king’s subservient gesture is accentuated by the prominence given it within the composition. Set squarely in the center foreground, his life-size presence is further accentuated by the bright-red hue of his robe. It is the dominant coloristic accent in the picture and carries boldly across the broad space of the chapel. Set not far above the eye level of the viewer, his bowed head and humbled posture offer an intimate communion with the viewer on the conduct of personal devotion.

It is quite possible that the lightly bearded young black attendant in Caminade’s picture was made from life. He bears a considerable resemblance to the features of Joseph, a well-known Haitian acrobat and contortionist performing in Paris at that time. Discovered around 1818 by the artist Théodore Géricault among the members of the troupe of the famed tight-rope artist Madame Saqui, Joseph had posed for one of the key figures in that painter’s epochal work The Raft of the Medusa.

From this experience, Joseph undertook a long career as an artist’s model. He became popular not only because of his broad-shouldered physique but also for the engaging nature of his personality. With this information we gain just a glimpse of the real individual behind his appearance in the studio.

Almost 20 years later, Théodore Chassériau painted Joseph nude and full length as a study for the figure of Satan in a work that was never completed. In between, this well-known, attractive man may have posed for Caminade, too. The broad range of subjects that black people were employed to represent in these remarkable images demonstrates their relevance to the thematic concerns of French artists of the period.

To modern eyes, the emphasis on the black king’s pious gesture can represent a dual role, one quite literal, the other broadly speculative and not without irony. Beyond its spiritual significance, his prostrate figure suggests a special place for the African in the contemporary French mindset, not only within the scene but also in the future of the nation itself.

At the time the painting was installed, slavery still existed in the French colonies of the West Indies. Only in 1830, just one year before Caminade’s Adoration of the Magi was installed at St. Etienne, did the French government officially ban the slave trade, although its illegal practice continued for years. The abolition of slavery itself was sporadically discussed in political circles, although the strong lobby of the sugar interests and plantation owners prevented any true progress toward its achievement. The abolition of slavery in French territories would be achieved by nothing less than the tumultuous occurrence of the 1848 revolution.

The black king can be taken as an allusion to the popular image of the supplicant slave employed so effectively by the abolitionist movement in Europe and the United States. Looking further ahead to the colonial ambitions of France in sub-Saharan Africa, the black king also symbolizes the occupation of huge territories within the continent, as well as the concern of its native populations for their own well-being as they faced the prospects of life under new masters in their own land.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center 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.