Marie-Guillemine Benoist Portrait of a Negress
On the eve of the French Revolution, Marie-Guillemine Benoist was part of a small elite of young women painters who were soon able to follow the teaching of the great Neoclassicist master Jacques-Louis David. Having endured a difficult few years during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, Benoist's portrait of an Afro-Caribbean woman is a unique and idiosyncratic work of womanhood and empire, a contradictory piece full of the indecisions of a French nation that was hovering between imperial grandeur and humanist renaissance. Painted in 1800, just six years after the nation abolished slavery, the issue would have resonated with contemporary viewers due to the fact that Napoleon was being cajoled to restore slavery in return for the loyalty of various islands along the Caribbean slave route.
This splendid portrait depicts a real person, although nothing is known of the model. The artist did not know the name of this woman, who was most likely a domestic servant liberated from the bonds of forced labour some few years previously. Her gaze directly meets that of the viewer, her pose echoing that of several high-profile portraits painted by Benoist's tutor David, particularly his Portrait of Madame Récamier, painted that same year. David's style is also reflected in the bare background and the minimal use of accessories, as in the sculptural modelling of the physical form, the direct lighting and the distinct colors. To heighten the anachronous subject, Benoist highlights the racial difference by accentuating the black skin pigmentation against the light background and bright white fabric.
For many, Benoist's Portrait of a Negress is a promotion of the emancipatory promises that the French Republic bore for women and slaves, a reminder for the authorities to stick to their ethical guns. Her naked breast, arising from the pristine clean material, refers to the symbolic Marianne, the Revolutionary foster mother of the French people. A product of an emancipatory environment Benoist's silent but insistent plea for further reform did not meet the ears of the Emperor Napoleon whose colonial interests and overseas ambitions finally condemned French power in the Americas, and lost the battle for hearts and minds. The revolution failed and the French Empire fell, leading to a period of Orientalism and colonial oppression, yet Benoist's canvas is a testament to the hopes and dreams that pervaded that heady time of idealism and enthusiasm for the rights of man – and woman.
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