Why Is a Black Man in a French Family Portrait?

Image of the Week: The musician functions as an emblem of status and upward social mobility during the golden era of Louis XIV.

Attributed to Master of the Games, The Dance Lesson, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 85 by 115 cm.
Attributed to Master of the Games, The Dance Lesson, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 85 by 115 cm. The Menil Collection, Houston

This representational sleight of hand was a common practice with artists and their patrons of the time. Quite often, upper-class sitters would be shown with elaborately dressed black children whom they did not, in fact, actually own. In the case of the children and their instructor, the black man represents the middle-class desire for the same degree of social legitimacy.

Black people lived throughout France at this time, but it was in Paris, the bustling capital of the nation, where the artist would have met the greatest number. The depiction within his surviving work of models for three types of mid-17th-century blacks—the domestic, the child slave and the musician—suggests the presence of a large group of people of African origin who had negotiated their place among the great range of social strata and occupations found within the large urban center.

As difficult as their circumstances may have been, their identities in both life and art followed a path relatively unencumbered by the insidious forms of official control soon to be imposed as greater numbers of slaves were imported into France from the nation’s newly established overseas colonies.

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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