A Slave’s Exotic Beauty Becomes a Status Symbol in France

Image of the Week: A youthful servant named Paul appeared in two pieces of French art, which helped enhance the wealth and social status of his owner.

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans

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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Presented to the viewer in the magnificent attire of a servant, a young black man of 18th-century France comes exuberantly to life. The youth’s confident air transcends the irony of enslavement in a land struggling with the notion of freedom on its native soil.

The bust represents Paul, a slave in the service of a wealthy family in prerevolutionary France. The head of the household was Aignan-Thomas Desfriches, a successful businessman and artist. Though trained as an artist in Paris, he had reluctantly returned to his native Orléans in north-central France to continue the family trade after the death of his father.

The bust was modeled about 1760 by the fashionable sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. Desfriches hosted the artist during his visit to Orléans, perhaps made in connection with a proposed monument to the native heroine Joan of Arc for the city’s new bridge. The project never materialized, but while in the city, Pigalle made busts of both Desfriches and Paul.

He worked directly in the medium of terra cotta, a type of clay long preferred by artists for its directness of handling and aesthetic appeal. Paul wears an elaborate, Oriental-style turban festooned with large, curving feathers and a buttoned vest draped by a thick, fleecy jacket. Around his neck is a silver slave collar, a certain sign of his status as an enslaved house servant.

Little is known of Paul and his life with the Desfriches household. An early account of his arrival in France stretches the limits of credulity. Supposedly the artist’s brother had been seized by a corsair, or pirate ship, in the Mediterranean. Enamored with his captive’s elegant “riding coat” and its excellent fit, the captain released him, sending him on his way with a black youth as compensation. Upon the brother’s return to Orléans, Paul was given to Desfriches as a present.

How Paul actually came to be in Orléans might, however, more directly be related to the major role the city played in the colonial economy of France. Located at the turn of the river Loire, Orléans served as a crucial link between the Atlantic port of Nantes and a large portion of the interior. By Paul’s day the city had played a significant role in the slave trade for well over a century. Raw sugar from the French colonies of the West Indies was brought for processing far up the Loire from Nantes, the last leg of the triangular trade that took advantage of fair winds to expedite the exchange of slaves and the products of their labor. Desfriches’ firm dealt in fournitures—that is, equipment and other supplies related at least in part to the sugar trade.

In addition to the bust, another image of Paul more explicitly reveals the nature of his life as a servant. The young man appears in an engraved view of the city of Orléans, based on a drawing made by Desfriches in 1761. Paul is seen near his master’s family on the bank of the Loire. He lounges elegantly nearby on the ground, beside two seated white women, perhaps family members but plausibly well-dressed servants. Paul’s body is mostly seen in profile, his head raised and coiffed in a feathered turban, just as he is presented in the bust. He cuts one of the fanciest, most impressive figures in the entire scene. This was essentially his purpose, his raison d’être, as a servant. Paul’s youthful, exotic appearance was clearly intended to enhance his owner’s wealth and social status.

Administrative and legal records pertaining to the treatment of blacks in France during this time give a good idea of the encumbering official framework that Paul and other people of color faced as France became ever more dependent on slave labor in its colonies. It has long been held that while slavery was a legal practice in French colonies, the condition simply did not exist in the métropole—that is, the mother country.

With the large-scale importation of slaves to the Americas in the 18th century, the question of a slave’s right to freedom in the French homeland began to be addressed in practical terms. As late as 1691, black slaves were actually freed once they set foot in France. Soon, however, a kind of backlash set in, and by the beginning of the next century, slaves entering the country with their masters were subject to ever more restrictive legal constraints. In large part such measures reflected a growing concern over racial mixing and its perceived debilitating effects on the nation’s moral and national character.