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.
Rendered with an economy of means and a penetrating observation of character, a black man in a military uniform adopts a calm, reflective demeanor rarely seen in depictions of martial authority. The subject’s intelligent, reserved gaze projects a candid view of a man still young but already of considerable accomplishment.
Despite its small size, this compelling sketch evokes the dawn of a radically new ideal of individual and collective liberty ushered in by the French Revolution. Just as important, it succinctly proclaims the indispensable role of black people in its achievement.
The portrait is one of a group of 17 unrelated small-format head studies by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, a highly versatile painter of official works for the French government as well as formal portraits and exotic scenes of the Middle East just being opened up by French colonial expeditions. As preparatory works or sketches, these intimate works were not exhibited or sold and remained in the studio at the artist’s death. At some point they were randomly assembled on a single surface. The ensemble was probably acquired at a sale of the studio contents by a private collector.
The sketch most likely dates to the middle period of the artist’s career, which coincided with the advent of a new phase in the post-revolutionary history of France. In 1830 the monarchy was restored after Napoleon was overthrown. The new leader, Louis-Philippe, sought to balance the grudges still nursed by partisans of the old regime, the republic, and the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. As a major part of his ideological reorientation of the state, Louis-Philippe decided to memorialize the history of French military exploits with a grand gallery of paintings to be set up in the former royal palace of Versailles. Vernet’s sketch may have some connection with this project. The sitter’s uniform dates to the initial period of the French Revolution, a time nearly 40 years earlier than the date of the sketch itself.
The identity of the black officer has received only passing attention in scholarly literature. Despite the paucity of information on the work, the larger context of black participation in French revolutionary activities provides valuable insight into the role of the sitter in this crucial period of French history and perhaps provides him with a name as well.
During the heady early days of the French Revolution, many people of African descent rose to the defense of the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood. One of the most notable results of the reformation of French armed forces during the early 1790s was the creation of a cavalry brigade composed of gens de couleur libres, or free men of color. The unit came about through the efforts of Julien Raimond and other delegates to the new French government from Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, as it has been known since it won its independence in 1804.
Headed by the acclaimed classical musician and fencer Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi (Free Cavalry Legion of the Americans and the South [of France]) soon played a crucial role in the advancement of the republican cause. One of its most able officers was a patriot from Saint-Domingue, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, better known by his mother’s surname as Alexandre Dumas. Both men shared similar circumstances of parentage, born of informal liaisons between white planters and enslaved black women in Saint-Domingue. These mulatto offspring formed an important class of residents in the French colonies, firmly fixed on the social scale between free blacks and white citizens.
Comparison of Vernet’s sketch with contemporary portraits of Saint-Georges rule him out as the subject. The younger man so vividly portrayed by Vernet may instead represent Dumas. Unlike Saint-Georges, his likeness did not become iconic in his own lifetime, and none of the well-known images of Dumas seem to have been made from life. Although Vernet’s sketch was clearly made from a living model, it, too, is only a belated stand-in for the man himself. Perhaps not just coincidentally, the man in the sketch closely conforms to a description of Dumas recorded in a regimental muster roll when he first entered the military in 1786: “frizzy black hair and eyebrows … oval face, and brown skinned, small mouth, thick lips.”
Dumas went on to distinguish himself in several major military campaigns of the French Revolution. After his service with the chevalier, he commanded two armies, achieving notable victories but also demonstrating great skill as an administrator. The dénouement of his career actually began auspiciously, when, in 1798, Napoleon appointed him cavalry commander for an ambitious invasion of Egypt far to the east. Before long Dumas found himself at odds with Napoleon’s heavy-handed imperial ambitions and treatment of the troops and requested a leave of absence.