On the way back to France, his ship wrecked off the coast of Italy, where he was captured by hostile forces. After two years of harsh treatment, Dumas was released, only to find himself permanently out of favor with Napoleon. He died in poverty at his home in France, apparently of stomach cancer, in 1806. A final irony in the life of Dumas’ service to the republic lies in the revival of slavery in the French colonies by Napoleon in 1802. Committed to the principle of freedom, Dumas must have felt a keen sense of betrayal of his country’s professed ideals. Posthumous honors did await him however. His name was later to be inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe, a grandiose war memorial decreed by Napoleon to honor the war dead of the revolution.
Dumas’ legacy was uniquely preserved by his young son and namesake, Alexandre Dumas père, who grew up to become one of the greatest novelists in French literature. Proud of his African heritage, the younger Alexandre projected his father’s larger-than-life exploits into great works of romantic fiction such as The Count of Monte Cristo.
Even if the man in Vernet’s masterful sketch does not bear the features of General Dumas, his self-composed demeanor more than adequately captures the humanity and powerful physical presence often admired by contemporaries of the great leader. The contributions of Dumas and others to the highest ideals of their age are embodied in this deeply felt image of black military prowess.
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.