Until very recently, it was assumed that almost all marble versions by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux Why born a slave! (1868) had been lost to time. The bust is considered one of the most important 19th century depictions of a slave, although it was made 20 years after the second abolition of slavery in France. In 2018, a version of the sculpture of a naked black woman bound by ropes resurfaced and eventually made its way to Christie’s in Paris. Presenting Carpeaux as an “ardent opponent of slavery”, the auction house praised the work for “putting [the viewer] face to face with the reality of bondage. It was purchased by a dealer for the equivalent of over $300,000. This dealer then sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which officially added this work by Carpeaux – it also has a terracotta version which it acquired in 1997 – to its collections in 2019.
The ways Christie’s described Why born a slave! and its many versions are similar to those that many historians, museums and critics have offered in the 150 years since its creation. Corn the truth of the creation of the work and the context from which it came is more complex. Carpeaux was in dire financial straits when he made the work, which was reproduced many times by his studio before his death in 1875 at age 48, and so Why born a slave! was a way for him to capitalize on a fervor for abolitionist imagery in France, where he was based. And if Carpeaux became famous for works like this, with his finely wrought psychology and deft rendering of taut flesh, the identity of the model of Why born a slave! remains unknown. Not to mention the work’s similarities to ethnographic sculptures, which have been used throughout the West for centuries as a racist tool to assert white dominance over the various peoples they colonized.
Now the marble and terracotta versions of Why born a slave! form the centerpieces of a new exhibition at the Met unlike anything the institution has ever seen in its history. Titled “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast,” this small but mighty show opens today. He treats Why born a slave! critically, casting it in the light of other 19th-century works that deal with the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and abolitionist movements in France and the United States. The show’s thesis — that Carpeaux’s image of an anonymous black person had effects that reverberated through the centuries — will be provocative to some. Even more shocking to many will be his mere presence at the Met, which has rarely, if ever, confronted so directly the role that art has played in structural racism.
“Many works of art carry an abolitionist message, but nonetheless contribute to notions of racial inequality,” said Elyse Nelson, assistant curator in the Met’s Department of European Paintings and Drawings who curated the exhibition with poet Wendy S. .Walters. “This contradiction is the norm in Western art. I think there is still a lot of confusion around this issue, and I really hope that visitors will come to see this and recognize it.
“Carpeaux Recast” was one of the first shows Nelson proposed when she was hired by the Met in 2019. In February 2020, just before the pandemic hit in New York, the show was approved, only for the Met to shut down for six months. In the summer of 2020, as protests against structural racism following the murder of George Floyd rocked the nation, Walters was named the show’s curator.
There are precursors to the show. The Met exhibited the terracotta version of Why born a slave! on several occasions, notably during a Carpeaux retrospective in 2014, which included some 150 works and touted the artist as an “exceptionally gifted and deeply tormented sculptor who defined the heady atmosphere of the Second Empire in France”. This new exhibit is intended as a corrective, according to Nelson, who said she and Walters were trying to “critically engage with the issues of imperialism and colonialism that are present in this bust and that have not been covered in this exhibition.
And then there’s the example of the landmark 2018 exhibition “Posing Modernity,” which opened at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery and examined the role black role models have played in the late 19th century French art, including paintings by Édouard Manet. (Denise Murrell, the curator of that exhibit, was later hired by the Met.) Unlike “Posing Modernity,” however, the model that settled for Carpeaux is largely not the focus. Curators found a promising lead for her identity – it may have been Louise Kuling, a free woman from Virginia in France. But there was no positive evidence that Kuling was the person Carpeaux was describing. “We felt that if we were to say she was definitely the model, or make that presumption, we would be participating in this kind of speculation about the work and its origins that we were trying to stage the show against,” Walters said. .
And, to make the problem worse, Why born a slave! is “not a portrait,” Nelson added.
Instead, it’s a kind of allegory, a figure that effectively represents a whole – in this case, an entire race. As ‘Carpeaux Recast’ points out, this approach to sculpture was widely used at the time, with artists such as Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the same sculptor who would later design the Statue of Liberty, making depictions of men and black women like Africa. personified. These works enlisted the facial features and body types that ethnographers have associated with black people, in a form of junk science that aimed to prove the differences between Europeans and people of African descent. As art historian James Smalls writes in the exhibition catalog, ethnographic objects are “fictitious substitutes for real bodies.”
You could say that Carpeaux’s sculpture works the same way, delivering an abolitionist message through a bare-breasted female slave. “The bourgeois or Second Empire clientele was extremely fascinated and intrigued by this for a number of reasons,” Nelson said. “Slavery as a subject becomes a pretext for the representation of tied up naked female bodies. It is the irony that we have tried to point out, that although it carries an anti-slavery message, it is not a work that represents equality. It represents subjection. Plus, she said, owning the artwork could be a form of “signal of virtue,” given that France had outlawed slavery — for the second time — in 1848, nearly two decades before Carpeaux don’t do Why born a slave!
Nelson’s words are all the more striking in light of another work in the exhibition: a sculpture of a very different tenor by Edmonia Lewis, an artist of African American and Anishinaabe and Ojibwe descent who is became famous during the time of the American Civil War. Positioned in the center of the show not far from the Carpeaux sculptures, free forever (1867) was created while the artist was living in Rome, and shows a black slave standing with one arm raised. A broken chain hangs from his wrist as a young woman watches him. “We wanted to keep in mind that there were other interpretations of Emancipation that were created around the same time as the creation of Les Carpeaux,” Walters said.
Much of “Carpeaux Recast” appears to be set more than a century in the past, but Walters is quick to point out that Why born a slave! has implications for the present. “In the contemporary context, there are also people who have sought out this work for its figurative aspects, for the fact that it is a realistic and naturalistic representation of a black woman, whether or not she is a real person or an imaginary person,” she said. A cast of Carpeaux’s play appeared in Janet Jackson’s home when she was photographed by Architectural Summaryand he appeared in Beyoncé’s 2020 Ivy Park ad campaign.
As if to further emphasize this point, the curators have also included two works from later years by Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley. The Walker piece is a direct response to Les Carpeaux. Title Black (2017), an allusion to the name long used by researchers to designate Why born a slave!, Walker’s piece is a plaster cast of Les Carpeaux placed low in an angle. For Walters, this begs the question, “Who owns the representation and who has the power to shape the presentation of the representation?” »
One answer may come from a poem Walters wrote for the Met in 2019, titled “In the gallery.” In the first part told by the woman portrayed by Carpeaux, Walters writes: “My name, for now, is my body / Soft in flesh but stronger in stone. / I find my way through years of silence / After a life surrounded by enemies.