Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2020
Anne Lafont L'art et la race: L'Africain (tout) contre l'œil des Lumières Dijon, France: Les presses du réel, 2019. 476 pp.; 132 color ills.; 8 b/w ills. Paper €32.00 (9782378960162)

The polysemous nature of the concept of race in the eighteenth century meant that while the term’s employment was widespread, its meaning was hardly fixed. Regardless, what united its many different usages was a consensus that it was defined by visual traits, thus making the visual arts one of the most important disseminators and delineators of racial information. As Anne Lafont states in her impressively researched and comprehensive L’art et la race:

Race is indeed anchored in the body regardless of the will of those who are its carriers. . . . Its absence of categorical fixity during the age of Enlightenment spanned multiple occasions of the African’s emergence in works and images, and not being very prescriptive, it offered the possibility of working with a very different set of individuals. (38; all translations are mine)

One need look no further than Zamore for evidence of this eighteenth-century malleability of Blackness. Commonly known as “le Nègre,” he was actually a Bengali enslaved as the page of Louis XV’s mistress, the comtesse du Barry, until he reported her to the Committee of Public Safety and joined the revolutionary cause during the Reign of Terror.

Lafont aims to write more than an art history of slavery (hence the expansively signifying l’African (tout) in her title), even if slavery and the social and political constructions that justified it are the looming specters the book most needs to address. The volume of visual evidence that Lafont harnesses—from paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures to decorative arts such as clocks and medallions—is itself representative of the art historical boundaries her project seeks to erase. Such boundaries hinder a comprehensive examination of her subject, which is approximately framed chronologically by the 1685 publication of the Code Noir and the first French abolition of slavery in 1794. For this reason, she has organized her book not by national borders or aesthetic media but thematically, following, in her words, the leitmotif “of the emancipatory process of the African in the West . . . and of the Enlightenment’s progressive political trajectory as it relates to individual freedom in new states groping for the implementation of a form of civic equality” (41). As her book is oriented toward francophone audiences, it forcefully responds to a disciplinary practice of art history in France that has precluded the kind of study she has produced—a practice that has and continues to be strongly national, dominated by the great masters, and defined by the museum exhibition. But her approach is one to which many anglophone readers will be already highly receptive.

Race, Lafont makes clear, only has meaning when placed within adopted systems and methods of classification. To speak of race in the eighteenth century is not to speak, de facto, of racism. It does mean, however, placing ostensibly observation-based descriptions of human variety within the fraught world that sustained slavery and the broader European imperial project, and thus inevitably often leading to racist conclusions and outcomes.

Take, for example, Lafont’s analysis of Marie Sabina, a 1777 engraving based on a drawing by Jacques de Sève for Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’s Supplément à l’histoire naturelle de l’homme (64). Marie Sabina was born on a Jesuit plantation in the Americas in 1736. The daughter of enslaved Black Africans named Martiniano and Padrona, she had a genetic condition known as piebaldism, which results in patches of unpigmented skin across the body. Albinism, piebaldism, and other conditions that resulted in irregular skin pigmentation were abiding preoccupations of eighteenth-century natural historians invested in a monogenist explanation of human origins. Monogenists used melanin deficiencies in Black Africans as evidence to conclude, in contrast to their polygenist counterparts, that Africans and Europeans were the same species, descending from a common ancestor.

These observation-based, albeit pseudoscientific conclusions, however, did not exist in a vacuum, as the image of Marie Sabina attests. Showing her stripped of all clothing, the engraving was incorporated into Buffon’s work to illustrate her piebaldism in support of his monogenist stance. But she is represented within the combined conventions of ethnography (providing a cover to incorporate props embodying the same double meanings of white and black skin inherent in Marie Sabina’s piebaldism) and portraiture (giving the impression of consent that hides the gendered and racial violence of her use as a scientific specimen). The umbrella that appears behind her, for example, was a key accessory of European women in the West Indies, used to protect their skin from the sun, but was also regularly held over them by their enslaved Black servants; the feathered crown combines the iconography of European royalty with that of colonial continental American and West Indian territories where enslavement was rampant; the pearls were both a luxurious ornament of European women and expressive of an aesthetic of enslaved young female domestic servants, worn to counterbalance their shortly cropped hair. The end result is a pictorial narrative extraneous to scientific observation but deliberately embedded in the social implications of white and black skin relative to enslavement.

This rich analysis permeates Lafont’s book, which she divides into six chapters and an introduction and conclusion. Chapters 1 and 2 address the concept of whiteness as an ideal and as performed in portraiture, often in contradistinction to Blackness. This dovetails with a close examination of whiteness and Blackness as they developed in the field of natural history and in burgeoning pseudoscientific theories about the origins of race that gave birth to the discipline of anthropology. These chapters are indebted to foundational works on the subject, such as David Bindman’s Ape to Apollo (Cornell University Press, 2002) and Andrew S. Curran’s Anatomy of Blackness (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). But Lafont adds original observations exactly because of her rejection of art historical canonicity, pairing the works of high masters with scientific illustrations to highlight how Blackness and whiteness were ideological and aesthetic foils across diverse visual media.

Chapters 3 and 4 consider representations of the African as (potential) citizen and as revolutionary in both Europe and America. How did the representation of the African progress from page to agent and fighter for the Enlightenment value of liberty? How were Africans’ victories and failures represented in different colonial contexts, whether the subject be Crispus Attucks in continental America or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Saint-Domingue? What were the visual traditions on which their representations were grounded? Here, Lafont’s pairing of Charles Willson Peale’s 1819 Portrait of Yarrow Mamout with earlier Napoleonic portraits of Mamluks is particularly compelling, highlighting hitherto overlooked transatlantic connections.

Chapter 5 considers the taste for Africaneries, interweaving an Orientalist framework into an examination of paintings, prints, and objets d’art. The eighteenth century was no stranger to the taste for things foreign: le goût chinois, Turquerie, and le goût siamois, not to mention the Mamluk craze after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. There were no Africaneries truly distinct from these trends or from a broadly Orientalist category; instead, an African genre was culled from Ottoman, Native American, and West Indian sources, if not from representations of the enslaved themselves.

Violence in images of Black people is the concern of chapter 6, which gives particular attention to William Blake’s engravings for John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana (1796) but also brings into view images of slave revolt and uprising relative to representations of white violence as seen during the French Revolution or the Boston Tea Party. White violence against enslaved Black people brought to the fore European inhumanity and cruelty. But while actual Black uprising offered a way forward in the path to liberty, representations of Black violence threatened to upend the precarious status of Black citizenship in the white imagination.

At various points in her study Lafont considers not only what is visualized but also what is not. For example, if the textual realm of Enlightenment discourse betrays an overwhelming fascination with the “noble savage” and ideas of the “state of nature,” these concepts’ visual iterations often take the form of fanciful views of Indigenous Americans, but never of Black Africans. As Lafont argues, slavery separates and decontextualizes, both through physical violence and exile and through ideological ruptures in how geographies are conceived. Due to the slave trade, European knowledge of Africa was largely confined to its West African trading ports; inland exploration only began in earnest after the slave trade was abolished. Throughout the eighteenth century, Europeans had no knowledge of inland Africa around which their ideas of a “noble savage” or an Africaneries aesthetic might cohere, and thus they looked to other geographies, from which more developed iconographies of otherness had already developed.

While it may initially surprise that Lafont returns to an established master like Théodore Géricault to conclude a book that pushes so strongly against canonical boundaries, this finally proves a provocative turn. Those of us trained in social art history have come to understand revolutionary form as something constituted by a revolutionary political and social moment; Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793), in both style and subject, could not have happened at any other moment. But as Lafont declares, after persuading her reader of the manner in which Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819) created a new artistic form for the rebellious Black man as savior of a world that includes whites (and pace T. J. Clark): “The pictorial revolution therefore happened with Géricault and not with David: political history was not always granted to the history of forms” (409). In the representation of Black subjects, as in real life, white recognition of Black centrality to radical political advancement always operates on a delay.

Liza Oliver
Diana Chapman Walsh Assistant Professor of Art History, Wellesley College