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

It has been estimated that during the 18th century, no more than 4,000 to 5,000 black people lived in France at any one time. What of Paul and his life with Desfriches? According to an official edict of 1738, he could legally remain in France for only three years and could not be married, even to a black woman. If his master failed to fulfill his obligations to the state regarding his human property, Paul could have been freed but would also have been deported, not necessarily to the place of his origin but to any French colony.

There is no surviving trace of Paul after his brief but evocative appearance in French art. Quite possibly his master complied with the terms of the edict of 1738 and returned him to the colonies. On the other hand, despite the threat of legal sanctions, Paul may have stayed, started a family and even gained his freedom. In either case, his descendants would have witnessed the dramatic events of revolutions at home or abroad. With the definitive end of slavery in 1848, all strategies employed to cope with a life in bondage would be exchanged for the equally challenging life of a person of color in the post-emancipation era.  

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.

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