Museum exhibitions are traditionally about objects. But in a provocatively narrated exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century black portraits, the Met comes face to face with itself.
Emancipation Fictions: Carpeaux Recast focuses on Why born a slave!, the bust of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux modeled in 1868 and produced in popular editions thereafter. Life-size, she is tied at the chest with a rope, gazing upwards in knowledge and pain – a captive no doubt to the crime inflicted on her.
The Met already owned Carpeaux’s terracotta version of the famous book. Then a rare marble (one of two from his workshop) was put up for sale in 2018 with the idea that it could be the linchpin of an exhibition.
“Carving requires patronage, requires wealthy patrons, so it’s often associated with the state,” Nelson explained. This state, the court of Napoleon III, was very proud of the Emancipation Decree of 1846, a generation before that of America. Carpeaux’s work offered belated congratulations to France. The emperor was among its first buyers.
But when art is linked to regimes – especially regimes as monopolistic as the Second Empire – it struggles to gain our trust. There was something impure about the Met’s acquisition: in buying an enslaved woman, the show’s catalog asks, “can we be other than complicit in the aestheticization of slavery?”
In this spirit, the exhibition interrogates Carpeaux through his early sketches of the bust, his marble, his earlier versions and his renderings of a larger public work related to him. This has to be the most comprehensive examination ever of his iconic sculpture.
For the catalog, Wendy S Walters, professor of non-fiction at Columbia and co-curator of Nelson, explores the work as a testimony of subjugation, even fetishization. “We historically understood slavery,” Walters explained to me, “to think that the sexual component of slavery was separate from the labor component.” They were not.
Walters argues that Carpeaux revisits this sexual component a little too easily: the hyperrealism where the rope meets the chest, the artist’s alleged aggression towards women, his commodification of the likeness of a slave for financial gain and a political favour.
Viewers will leave either outraged by such politicization of art, or equipped with a more nuanced understanding of the delicate post-abolition era, a time when European heads of state made grand gestures in favor of equality as they plotted the Scramble for Africa.
Carpeaux’s contemporaries appear and give him context. The familiar works of Charles Cordier pose ruthless questions about the white gaze. Formerly a jewel of the collection, the black man by Jean-Léon Gérome Bashi Bazouk (1868-69) still adorns the cover of the Met’s official guide, but it is now scrutinized “through the prism of European imperialism”.
One of the virtues of the show is to go back before Carpeaux, to the golden age of protest where its abolitionist vocabulary was forged. An exhibition is dedicated to Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter whose medallion from 1787 took off like wildfire among the militants of the time. No bigger than a thumbprint, it shows a black man chained up and begging for our sympathy. Here it is reproduced on a glass cologne bottle, on a mother-of-pearl jug, and on a gold seal fob modified to show a slave girl.
While Wedgwood’s intentions were good and his timing ingenious, such an adornment is reminiscent of Instagram’s black square, the company’s commitment to “do better,” the pint of Juneteenth ice cream.
The most enlightening guest is Jean-Antoine Houdon, Carpeaux’s ancestor in marble. Locals have long admired Houdon’s Bather (1782) in the sun-drenched courtyard of European sculpture at the Met. Prepared for a splash, the bather is lovely – the arch of her outstretched foot fixed nimbly on a stone, a detail both structural and emotive.
Turns out she didn’t wash herself. The bather was commissioned for a fountain in the 45-acre pleasure garden (now Parc Monceau) of the king’s cousin, the Duke of Orléans. Above her originally stood a black woman carved from lead, a servant who pumped water through a ewer onto the pure white back of her stone mistress.
If the servile half of the fountain disappeared during the Revolution, a plaster of his head appears on loan from Soissons. Far from the famous realism of Houdon (see his exquisite Ben Franklin in the American wing), this head represents a simplified, obsequious, very unhappy, smiling mother.
Worse, when France first freed its slaves, in 1794, Houdon converted his slave’s likeness to terracotta, scribbled an abolitionist legend into its base, and mass-produced it as an emancipation memento. The Met released their copy of this miniature for the show.
Here is an expert curation: the plaster slave, the clay freedwoman, the implicit bond with the marble mistress on the other side of the wing. “I think this project changed me as an art historian,” Nelson said of those ticking time bombs. “I think this is just the start of a conversation, and a larger conversation could follow.”
If Houdon’s parable teaches anything, it is how the feudal values of the old regime could pass itself off as liberalism. They disguised themselves as artists and patrons: after installing Houdon’s “happy slave” fountain in his wonderland, the Duke of Orléans, one of the richest men in France, gave up in its title at the time of the revolution and renamed itself “Philippe Egalité”. (The guillotine got it anyway.)
Conservatives believe Houdon’s cheap intentions with his smiling slave “served as precedents” for Carpeaux 90 years later. But why born a slave! is not so easy to reduce – not quite.
Yes, Carpeaux’s bosses, like the opportunistic Duc de Houdon, were the worst signallers of virtue. While Napoleon III was sending troops to take over Mexico, his Empress was using his bronze of Why Born Enslaved! to spread republican sentiment at home.
And yes, Carpeaux borrowed from his own racialized fountain, his allegory of the globe in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris (1874). Now anonymous, the babysitter of Why Born Enslaved! was obviously the same woman who modeled her “Africa” in this monumental public work. The chain around Africa’s ankle could well be interpreted as a degrading and irrelevant icon. “It was very common: an emancipated figure, even decades after abolition, would still bear the remnants of their captivity,” Walters explained.
For context, Walters and Nelson include earlier allegories of the “four continents” in porcelain and on paper. For all its realism, Carpeaux’s fountain – and by extension its bust – stems from a worn menu of ethnic tropes that put Europe first.
But these facts cannot attenuate the absolute electricity of the woman’s gaze. Against her strings she turns sharply to the left, and as you turn with her, circling a back-to-back display of terracotta and later marble, you will detect from this first draft to the last a slight sharpening of her brow – as if a wound that began in supplication has hardened into reproach. Against the casual Wedgwood and the shameless Houdon, Carpeaux creates nothing less than a human.
Janet Jackson possesses a reproduction, Beyoncé laid with one, and Kehinde Wiley depends on the sincerity of Carpeaux’s original for the strength of his own tributewho shows off wisely: a small bust criticizing the exploitation in modern sport.
Carpeaux’s stamina, as this spirited and feisty exhibition attests, can and must co-exist with the paternalistic traditions and dirty money in spite of which his work has come alive so well.
“Figures themselves carry multiple valences,” Walters proposed, “and if we allow them to carry multiple valences, then we really start to think critically about what representation is, which I think is the realm of of a museum.”