Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2018
Adrienne L. Childs and Susan H. Libby, eds. The Black Figure in the European Imaginary Exh. cat. Giles, 2017. 80 pp.; 55 color ills. Paperback $30.00 (9781907804496)
Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, January 14–May 14, 2017
Installation view, The Black Figure in the European Imaginary, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, January 14–May 14, 2017 (photograph © Austin Reeves; provided by Cornell Fine Arts Museum)

This catalogue of a relatively small but important exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College is devoted to depictions of black Africans and people of the African diaspora produced by Western European artists (British, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Danish) between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1890s. The volume begins with a short, pithy introduction by David Bindman, the general editor of Harvard University Press’s Image of the Black in Western Art series. The rest of the catalogue was prepared by Adrienne L. Childs and Susan H. Libby, who have both written extensively in this particular field. Childs and Libby previously collaborated on the edited volume Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century (Ashgate, 2014),, and the topic of this catalogue (and the accompanying exhibition) seems to have grown out of that earlier project. The catalogue has a checklist rather than entries on the thirty-one objects displayed, and the editors’ coauthored essay, “European Art and the Possibilities of Blackness” (17–43), is the central feature of the publication. I regret that I was unable to see the exhibition, but the catalogue’s full-color illustrations are excellent and include many rich details. Because most of the works exhibited were rather small—with the exception of John Philip Simpson’s Captive Slave (10), measuring 127 × 101.5 cm—the catalogue reproductions allow the reader to easily visualize the exhibition itself.

The exhibited works were primarily prints and paintings, supplemented with a few sculptures in varying media, and one photograph. Many of the paintings are either oil or watercolor sketches and studies, formats where one is more likely to find figures of color playing a central role in this era. Indeed, only three or four of the thirty-one images in the catalogue are dominated by white characters. There is, of course, a much larger number of European images in which African figures play a physically or visually marginal role, but they are consciously excluded here, which produces a singular effect. Even as Childs and Libby make it quite clear how many of their images explicitly or implicitly articulate the racial subordination of Africans, as a result of the legacy of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the growth of new racial/ethnographic theory, their particular selection of works makes a powerful case that Europeans’ visual attraction to dark-skinned Africans had other dimensions. The authors assert that white Europeans’ aesthetic admiration of Africans was not easily separable from hegemonic impulses, though the combination of these elements varies considerably from work to work. The analysis here is never reductive, although in some cases—like that of an Agostino Brunias painting—it can be a little too open-ended (3). The authors introduce the useful concept of “ornamental blackness”: dark faces and bodies, often elaborately and stylishly dressed, as a kind of spectacle that simultaneously admires and reifies what it admires as a luxury possessed by European elites.

The focus on the idealized, eroticized, and Orientalized in the catalogue’s painting and sculpture is counterweighted to some degree by the prints, most of which depict individuals of high political or cultural standing rather than types. In the discussion of these portraits—of the Viennese courtier Angelo Soliman, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, the actor Ira Aldridge, a Central African queen, and several leaders of the Haitian revolution—Childs and Libby explore how elaborate forms of dress reflect the subjects’ agency, even as this costuming in some ways echoes the exotic tropes more dominant in painting and sculpture.

All of the thirty-one works were borrowed from American collections. Though the works were clearly selected to suggest a wide range of European modes of representations of people of color, they are also filtered through the sensibility of American collectors, both from the early twentieth century and from recent decades. A few of these European images have an American valence; for example, an 1857 French color lithograph reproduces William Sidney Mount’s Bone Player (19). However, the authors make it clear that despite multiple transatlantic connections, European images of blackness have a distinctive character as compared with works made in the United States in this era. Nevertheless, as the authors acknowledge, there was an American taste as early as the 1800s for some of the more romanticized and eroticized European images of black Africans. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, eagerly acquired and praised a small bronze statue of a scantily clad young African (“Nubian”) woman by the Anglo-French sculptor Charles Cumberworth—an object that would have been an easy fit with many of the works of the catalogue.

Childs’s and Libby’s essay is wide ranging, but it does not address several of the objects in the checklist, and I cannot resist a few comments on one of these. John Ruskin’s striking 1858 watercolor of a black African woman in the entourage of the Queen of Sheba is a meticulous (but not exact) copy of a detail in a large picture by Paolo Veronese in Turin. In the context of the exhibition, it surely was intended to reinforce the notion of “ornamental blackness,” as the woman is surrounded by luxurious fabrics, and holds two bejeweled sculptures of parrots. There is indeed a link to several of the catalogue’s decorative arts sculptures in the so-called Blackamoor mode that Childs has previously written about: servile posture, elaborate dress, bearing of gifts.1 However, this watercolor did not exist purely as an ornamental study. Among other things, it figured in the complex relationship between Ruskin and his close friend Charles Eliot Norton, the American literary scholar and also the first real professor of art history (at Harvard) in the United States. Their close friendship was marred for a time by opposing views about the enslavement of African Americans; at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, the racist Ruskin mockingly asked Norton to send him an American slave gorgeously dressed like a black attendant from a Veronese picture. At Ruskin’s death in 1900, Norton became his executor, and selected this very watercolor for himself, subsequently donating it to Harvard’s museum, where it remains today. This case suggests yet another way in which the political valence of the decorative mode can be manifested.

The Black Figure in the European Imaginary makes a real contribution to an increasingly significant field of iconographic study. Despite the very mixed messages its set of images conveys, there is also real visual pleasure to be found in them. Several that I had not previously known—Devéria’s lithographic portrait of the Queen of Matamba, Henri Regnault’s oil sketch of an African man, and José Tapiró y Baró’s watercolor entitled A Tangierian Beauty (12, 23, 27)—are especially absorbing. To make these images known is to work against the all-too-frequent erasure of the black presence in European visual culture.

1. See Childs in Awam Amkpa and Ellyn Toscano, eds., ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings (Rome: Postcart, 2016).

Paul H. D. Kaplan
Professor of Art History, School of Humanities, Purchase College, SUNY