Laura, the Black Model Who Graced the Art of 19th-Century France

Image of the Black Archive & Library
Jacques-Eugène Feyen, Le baiser enfantin (“The Childlike Kiss”), 1865. Oil on canvas, 110 by 152 cm. 
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

No more self-assured statement of middle-class domesticity could be imagined than this charming tableau of maternity and childhood bliss set within a peaceful, enclosed garden. Behind its facade of bourgeois tranquillity, however, the highly accomplished painting reveals much more about the great diversity of people living in mid-19th-century France than the artist could have intended.


Jacques-Eugène Feyen was a fashionable painter of picturesque views of the Brittany coast of northern France, as well as portraits and genre scenes. At least two of his works contain a black servant working in a white bourgeois household. After being exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon of 1865 and then at a regional exposition in Lille, The Childlike Kiss was acquired by that city’s Palais des Beaux-Arts, where it hangs today.

The two women, a white mother and her black nursemaid, are seated on a ledge backed by a trellis. In the left background appears the faint image of a group statue of a classically robed woman and an adolescent child, included no doubt to reinforce the primary motive of the family group. The young mother holds up her youngest child, an infant girl, so that she can affectionately embrace her older brother. The black woman has swung the boy across her lap, her prominently visible left hand holding her charge firmly around the waist.

The relationship of the two women to the children is conveyed by the skillful use of contrasting body language. The suave form of the white mother arches over her children in a maternal gesture both protective and loving. The black nurse, though she smiles indulgently at the affecting moment, leans away from the mother and her children. Her voluminous skirt seems to spill out of the lower-right edge of the canvas, a visual metaphor of her more tentative relationship to the family. As will be seen, these women inhabit completely different spheres of the same world.

The black woman’s role of caregiver to a family of privilege is underscored by the costumes worn by both women. The mother is dressed in an outfit typical of Alsace, a region located on either side of the Rhine River. This rich agricultural area had long been claimed by both France and Germany and uniquely combined the cultural ambient of both countries. The truly defining element of her costume is the dark, ribboned cap on her head. Its form and color are typical of the Protestant north of Alsace, where the dark cap is traditionally worn by married women.


Although the artist presents his subjects with great fidelity to nature, it is the black nurse who appeals the most for her candor of expression and dynamic posture. By comparison, the white mother and her children fade behind their air of saccharine conventionality. Through her candid expression, the nurse seems to reveal more of her inner personality to the viewer. Dazzling in its colored components, her attire consists of a few simple elements. She wears a full-length blue dress over a white blouse edged by a crisp, narrow collar. The simple garment is draped by a long red shawl.

The ensemble, unlike her mistress’s costume, does not seem typical of the Alsace region. Its distinctive yet basic appearance resembles a kind of uniform, clearly indicating her status as a domestic servant. Her yellow head wrap and gold pendant earrings add an exotic touch to her outfit. Along with the relatively simple lines of her dress and shawl, these adornments also seem allusive to her life in service. Specifically, they stress the association in France at that time of the black nursemaid with the nation’s West Indian colonies.


On the other hand, the key to the personal identity of the smiling black woman in Feyen’s painting is found within the Parisian art scene itself. Sources of the time refer to her as Laura, a popular artist’s model whose face and figure appear in several works by modernist painters of the 1860s. Much speculation exists concerning her origin, with most positing some connection with Africa or the Caribbean, like that of the woman she represents in the painting.

The avant-garde impressionist Edouard Manet exhibited his scandalous painting of the enigmatic, fictional prostitute Olympia at the very Salon in which The Childlike Kiss was displayed. As in Feyen’s painting, the contrast in skin color denotes the differing occupational and social statuses of the two women. Unlike Feyen’s academic paean to maternal devotion, however, Manet avoided sentimentality altogether, opting instead to frankly put the sensual, reclining naked body of the white courtesan on display. A black woman wearing a headdress similar to that of the nurse in The Childlike Kiss brings a bouquet of flowers to her mistress, a present from one of her admirers. Her face so strongly resembles that of Feyen’s black serving woman that the model for both must be one and the same.


Feyen gives us a tantalizing visual record of Laura, but nothing of her life beyond her work as an artist’s model has turned up so far. A survey of the range of experiences commonly open to a black woman in the highly stratified, yet still porous society of 19th-century Paris can at least put the terms of Laura’s life in the French capital in some perspective. The repertoire of personae invented for her there extends from the exotic, haremlike attendant in Manet’s Olympia to the conventional treatment of the nursemaid in The Childlike Kiss.

Though perhaps not in her case, artist’s models occasionally entered into sexual liaisons with those fashioning their image. The pioneering photographer Nadar made two plates of his mistress Maria, one dressed, the other nude to the waist. As the art historian Deborah Willis has pointed out, other photos of black women from this period are clearly pornographic in nature, with no real pretense to aesthetic ends.


The appealing, meticulously rendered face of Laura in The Childlike Kiss hides as much as it reveals, yet provides a point of entry into the immensely complex social world of mid-19th-century Paris. Feyen presents an anodyne view of maternal virtue fostered by the conservative mores of a rapidly emerging bourgeois class. Such carefully defined values reflected the great wealth brought to France by a new period of colonial expansion throughout much of the world, including Africa. The evident ethnic contrast between the nursemaid/Laura and her employer states, for all who care to see, the disparity of material means and cultural inclusion that has been tinged through the French experience of the other up until the present day.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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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