Nicholas Penny

  • The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. IV, Parts I-II: From the American Revolution to World War One by Hugh Honour
    Harvard, 379 pp, £34.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 939594 17 X
  • Primitive Art in Civilised Places by Sally Price
    Chicago, 147 pp, £15.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 226 68063 0
  • The Return of Cultural Treasures by Jeanette Greenfield
    Cambridge, 361 pp, £32.50, February 1990, ISBN 0 521 33319 9

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade obtained, from an unrecorded artist, a design for its seal ‘expressive of an African in chains in a supplicating posture’, with the superscription ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ Small cameo reliefs after the seal were soon made by Josiah Wedgwood in his jasper ware, which, set into the lid of a snuff-box or dangling from the wrist, enabled the participants in this, the first great non-denominational philanthropic crusade, to exhibit their sensitivity and enlightenment. It was a smart and artistic antecedent of the lapel badges and car stickers which have been adopted by the champions of unborn babies and endangered species. This logo, as it would now be called, of the kneeling, shackled black was clear, compact, memorable, touching, and yet entirely decorous – with the added attraction, as Hugh Honour astutely points out in The Image of the Black, of hinting at conversion as well as emancipation. Indeed, Honour concludes that, for all the Society’s admirable intentions and great achievements – which he concedes with some reluctance – the very image of their endeavour to help the blacks came to ‘enshrine the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority’. The motto, or slogan, ‘echoed both Christian beliefs in the equality of mankind before God and enlightened theories of natural law’, as Honour observes, but it cannot be considered so congenial to white philanthropists’ conviction of their superiority. Brotherhood – fraternité, – soon became an explosive word.

Art and literature in the last decades of the 18th century and the first of the 19th – the first part of the period that Honour explores – are notable for the contradictory ideas and prejudices about blacks which they reveal. To this period belong what are perhaps the most sympathetic and beautiful portraits of blacks ever made by Europeans. One of these is Reynolds’s incomplete and undated study of a young black man listening (it seems) to the winds that disturb the sky behind him, a painting long believed to be a portrait of Dr Johnson’s beloved black servant, Frank Barber. Houdon’s radiant patinated plaster head of a black woman of 1781, probably made in connection with a fountain group for an aristocrat’s garden, is another. Above all, there is the Portrait d’une Négresse exhibited at the Paris salon in 1800 by a pupil of David, Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist. The woman’s breast is exposed, but not with any sly or coy intention – her undress seems as natural to her as her white cotton turban; and the candour of her gaze is as disarming as the dignity of her bearing is impressive. She was painted, Honour notes, ‘during that brief period between the emancipation decree of 1794 and the restoration of slavery in 1802 when a black citoyenne was “free and equal”, that is to say as free and as equal as any French woman.

The painting must surely have been intended at least partly as a tribute to the French emancipation of slaves and as a celebration of the hopes expressed in numerous emancipation prints, several of which represented females. Might the artist have gone even further, perhaps, taking the words Moi égal à toi inscribed on the prints as an augury for the emancipation of all women?’

Honour’s exhaustive survey reveals how seldom colour seems then to have been an impediment to egalitarian sentiment, or the pretext for its opposite. The devil could be thought of as black, and Honour reproduces the spectacular study Ingres commissioned from a former pupil, Chasseriau, of a black Parisian model (he couldn’t obtain one in Rome), which he proposed to use for a painting of Satan. But this was a most unusual interpretation. It was also proposed that, because blushes register only on white faces, shame and embarrassment – those essential indicators of a civilised sensibility – must be deficient in blacks; but this argument was far outweighed by the numerous testimonials to the beauty of black skin, often compared with basalt or patinated bronze, which were as much valued by connoisseurs as statuary marble. Far more significant than any sense of difference which colour might suggest was the ‘evidence’ that blacks were not brothers ‘under the skin’. In Julien-Joseph Virey’s popular Histoire Naturelle du Génie Humain (first published in 1801) a profile taken from a sculpture of the bearded Zeus is contrasted with one of an Ibo African with large lips, flat nose and receding brow, and one of an orangutan. Virey considered that the shape of the black’s forehead suggested that the brain was contracting with distaste for thought, whilst the projection of nose and mouth indicated a preference for sniffing and eating.

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