THE FORGOTTEN HISTORY OF THE BLACK MUSE

The rich and valuable Black culture completes the whole picture in arts


By JOANNA DAVIES: LITERATURE Columnist


Whether you’re an English rock fan or an avid Greek mythology buff, the word muse will mean different things to you.

But across the board, it’s someone who captures the attention and fuels the inspiration of creatives. In the art history world, muses are essential to the work of painters – as is our understanding of them to appreciate the context in which these works were created. The figures featured in these pieces can offer invaluable insight into the message and legacy of an artist’s canon.

Although Black people have appeared in Western art since the 1500s, prior to the 19th century many of the depictions were degrading and trivialised. The preponderance of Eurocentrism has been discussed as an enduring issue in the art history world, rooted in the archaic assumption that Western subject matter holds more cultural significance. You might have noticed Google Doodle’s recent tribute to Fanny Eaton who worked as an artist’s sitter for notable Pre-Raphaelite painters during the 1860s. Arriving in London from Jamaica as a child, Eaton forged a brief but prolific career as a muse in the Royal Academy and for established painters, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Simeon Solomon. At the time, art was a bastion of Victorian ideals, riddled with racism and discrimiation. Her striking beauty was highly revered in the community, and invaluable to the artists rebelling against the fashionable genre-painting.

Across the Channel, embers of these changes glowed in the French capital, with more and more Black Parisians appearing in visual art. Manet’s Olympia (1863) remains widely regarded as a seminal moment in the representation of Black people in painting. Although famous for its portrayal of an unashamed sex worker, many people have looked beyond this to the Black maid – later identified to be a woman named Laure – who was painted by Manet three times in 1863 alone. Focus on Laure and other Black muses has arguably gained most of its traction thanks to the work of Denise Murrell, an art history student fed up with the dismissal of Black figures in art history.


MACKAYAN: The forgotten history of the black muse


Beginning her Ph.D at Columbia university after a successful career in finance, Murrell noted the absence of diversity in the programme; “you can get an Art History Phd and not encounter any artists of color… let alone receive any meaningful interpretation if a person of color does come up.” Frustrated by her professor’s dismissal of her interest, Denise set off in pursuit of the story behind Manet’s muse.

Her dissertation research quickly escalated, soon turning the spotlight on many of the anonymous Black muses found in century-spanning visual art. Her aim was to “excavate their narrative” and redistribute analytic weight so that people knew the story behind the faces. She posits that Laure’s presence is a reflection of changing attitudes to the BIPOC communities of Europe at the time and their increased visibility and mobility in modern society. Her work culminated in the exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, a detailed exploration of the symbiosis of subject and artist, and the implication of the art’s context on the society it was created for and within. Denise’s triumphant exhibition burgeoned into a more extensive collection shown in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, including a loan of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine from the Louvre. This final imagining of Murrell’s initial idea came to fruition as a holistic view of Black representation in visual art.

Central to art is the ever-evolving conversations it incites. Work like Murrell’s is the product of that conversation: it highlights the importance of listening to the experiences of BIPOC experiences in the art world, funding the research and celebrating all facets and faces of history’s most influential art. No matter how extensive your knowledge and education is, there is always room to question and interrogate the structures through which the narrative of history is created.


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