Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2019
Denise Murrell Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today Exh. cat. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. 224 pp.; 177 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300229066)
Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, October 24, 2018–February 10, 2019; Musée d’Orsay, Paris, March 25–July 14, 2019

Scholars are continually engaged in reassessing evidence, and if they are diligent and perceptive enough they discover new ways of seeing our world. Such is the achievement of Denise Murrell’s 2013 dissertation, “Seeing Laure: Race and Modernity from Manet’s Olympia to Matisse, Bearden and Beyond,” written for the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University under the supervision of Professor Anne Higonnet. Three of Murrell’s other committee members—Alexander Alberro, Rosalyn Deutsche, and Kellie Jones—were drawn from the same department (with Jones also having a joint appointment in the Institute for Research in African American Studies). The final member of Murrell’s committee was Maryse Condé, professor emerita from Columbia’s Department of French and Romance Philology. As Chadd Scott observed about the work, “Tens of thousands of doctoral dissertations are written every year. Most exist entirely in obscurity. One or two go on to change the world.”

Murrell’s path to scholarly discovery was ostensibly an improbable one. After earning her MBA at Harvard Business School in 1980 and enjoying a long and successful career working in finance for companies such as Morgan Stanley, Citicorp, and Institutional Investor, Murrell went back to graduate school to study art history. There she became determined to answer a question that had occurred to her during a classroom lecture about Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). Who was the black woman swathed in a frothy pink dress and cradling a fresh bouquet of flowers who dominated the upper right half of Manet’s canvas? Finding no explanation, immediate or otherwise, she then wondered how that woman could have gone unnoticed by everyone. Surely Manet had wanted his viewers to notice her. This book, which is the catalogue that accompanied the exhibit Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery, Columbia University, October 24, 2018 to February 10, 2019, is her answer. It is also the vade mecum we need to understand what Murrell described in an interview as “the changing racial reality in Paris in the first fifteen years after the French abolition of territorial slavery” in 1848.

For it was during this period that a community of free black persons began to form in northwest Paris around place de Clichy. During these years Manet’s atelier was located at 81 rue Guyot and later at 4 rue de Saint-Pétersbourg. His black model was no figure of his imagination, but a real woman who lived not far away, at 11 rue de Vintimille, and who had posed for him several times. He identified her as “Laure, très belle négresse,” in one of his journals. In her text “Still Thinking about Olympia’s Maid,” Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby asserted that Manet was showing us what it meant to see black people “inside rather than outside the economy of paid labor,” by creating works in which black figures no longer appeared as nameless representations of the exotic or the erotic or dehumanized into grotesque racialized caricatures (Art Bulletin 97, no. 4: 431). Modernity in the form of a nascent black working class had arrived in Paris. According to Murell, Manet’s Olympia had been a “key factor in disrupting the fixity of the social classes in modern Parisian life” (53), and the “black female figure” became “foundational to the evolving aesthetics of modern art” (“Seeing Laure,” xxi). Manet’s friends—from Charles Baudelaire and his Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval to Alexandre Dumas of Franco-African parentage to Frédéric Bazille, whose painting Black Woman with Peonies (1870) Murrell persuasively argues was a response to Manet’s Laure—each reflected this dynamic in his or her own way.

Henri Matisse was born four years after Olympia was exhibited in 1865, and the importance of his exposure to the black modernist moment during the trips he made to Harlem in the 1930s is discussed in the catalogue’s second chapter. Matisse had several black models. Among them were Catherine DuBois, Carmen Lahens, and Elvira Josephine Van Hyfte, and we know more about them than we do of Laure (178–81). The third and final chapter begins with a fascinating study of Romare Bearden, who “synthesized the patrimony of the Harlem Renaissance with his admiration for the studio practice of Manet, Matisse and others” (147), and moves on to examine various interpretations of Laure and Olympia’s pictorial legacy by several contemporary black American artists, including Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, and Mickalene Thomas. The pattern is extended further with works by the Parisian artist Jean-Pierre Schneider, the Ethiopian American artist Awol Erizku, the Franco-Martinican artist Elizabeth Colomba, the Cape Verdian American photographer Ellen Gallagher, and the Congolese photographer Aimé Mpane, whose photograph of an Ethiopian prostitute posed à la Olympia closes the catalogue.

It is hard to find fault with this compelling and beautifully made volume, unless demerits are given for overstimulating the minds of the audience. There are, however, a few errors that should be fixed if there is to be a paperback edition or a variation made of this text for the expanded exhibition, Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse, currently on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, March 26–July 21, 2019. The Latin that is quoted at the bottom of page 27 comes from 1 Peter 5:18 and should read “quaerens quem devoret (not quarens or de voret). On page 40 the subject of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s portrait “has her Empire style gown folded down to expose” her right breast, not her left, and on page 60 there is a long space between the words “his” and “top hat” that should be closed up. But as Dr. Murrell’s novice pupil, I have found my own puzzle. I want to know why Romare Bearden in his homage to Olympia, Patchwork Quilt (1970), changed the design of the bracelet on Olympia’s right wrist and moved it to adorn the left wrist of his black nude. Is this a simple case of one artist’s friendly acknowledgment of another? Or is it a symbol of a sex worker’s servitude or perhaps evidence of an escape from the chains of bondage that can never be forgotten or fully realized? But while I work on answering that question, hats off to Denise Murrell, who has shown us that much can be found when we look as closely at and think as deeply about Laure as she did.

Michele Valerie Ronnick
Professor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Wayne State University, Detroit