Race and Representation in the French Colonial Empire

Susannah Blair, Columbia University, seb2210@columbia.edu

Stephanie O’Rourke, University of St Andrews, so38@st-andrews.ac.uk

This session will consolidate new research on the visual culture of race in France and its colonies during the 18th century and into the 19th century. It will be oriented around two key terms, ‘representation’ and ‘possession’, and their many resonances­­ – artistic, political, legal and relational. Papers will explore how art objects articulated, contested and disseminated changing notions of racial identity and citizenship in France and its global networks.

Over the past several years, scholars have examined the role of pictorial representation in shaping ideas of race, identity, indigeneity and slavery in the context of the British Empire. Bringing together new scholarship that builds upon these precedents, we aim to address a deliberately expansive geographical notion of French visual culture, one that includes the Caribbean, New France, North Africa, Canada and the Indian Ocean in addition to sites within the ‘metropole’ such as Paris and Nantes. Fostering a dialogue between art history, indigenous studies and critical race theory, our panel will provide a crucial scholarly platform for research that can inform pedagogy, curatorial practice and future scholarship.

Speakers & Abstracts

Racialised Bodies and (Dis)Possessed Objects in Nouvelle France

Joseph Litts (Princeton University)

In 1688, Swiss artist Gregor Brandmüller painted the allegory, Les quatre parties du monde, for a Basel merchant. Brandmüller trained with Charles Le Brun at Versailles and the Académie royale and he was one of many ties between Switzerland and Louis XIV. The Swiss used France’s New World colonies for financial gain (via direct investment and producing cotton fabric for trade) as well as a site to visualise imperial fantasies. Like other European continental allegories, I argue that Brandmüller’s allegorical figures are fetishes, merging bodies and luxury objects to visualise and naturalise colonial expansion. The arrival of non-European objects such as Cherokee baskets or Tumpinambá featherwork shifted bodily performance around material goods. These types of allegories specifically address this moment in settler colonialism.

With this entanglement in mind, Brandmüller responds to the Code Noir regulating slavery within France (1685) and the French settlement of Poste aux Arkansas on the Mississippi (1686). By erroneously visualising Nouvelle France as empty, Brandmüller advertised its availability for Europeans. He also painted the Black allegorical figure in a liminal status of non-human person and forced her into absorbed labour while white figures dance, painting François Bernier’s four-part racial hierarchy (1684) into being. The stakes of colonial expansion and race-based exploitation became evermore apparent within the Franco-Swiss world, and Brandmüller envisioned France’s empire for white Swiss Europeans to vicariously control and exploit. When he painted this allegory, amalgamating humans and objects, he gave abstract colonialism physical form, enabling viewers to better understand this French Atlantic world.

Race and Self Representation by West Africans at the Court of Louis XIV

Joaneath Spicer (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

In vivid contrast to the popular form of French court portraiture at the end of the 17th century involving the addition of a subordinate Black child as servant whose very presence called attention not only to the worth of the white aristocratic subject but to the balance of power within France’s nascent colonial empire, there are the portraits commissioned by West African personnes de qualité themselves. The focus of this paper is the portraits commissioned of himself by Prince Louis Aniaba of Assinie (present-day southern Côte d’Ivoire) around 1692 to 1701 (and mid-18th-century derivations). Issues to be considered: commissions and agency in general; characteristics of portraits meant for his parents versus the white gaze of the court; the role of race and customs of the court of Assinie in his self-fashioning; precedents; the role in his self-fashioning traceable to his chances of ascending the throne of Assinie with or without French assistance or more basically to the interests of the French Royal Company of Guinee in the Kingdom of Assinie and its access to nearby gold fields.   

This project is prompted by a painting of Balthasar, the Black King who adored the Christ which the author has identified as a portrait of Aniaba and is now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum.

Sculpting Whiteness on the 18th-Century Dining Table

Alicia Caticha (Northwestern University)

In 1757, the Academic sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716–91) was appointed the director of the sculpture atelier at the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory. Taking advantage of the material similarities between marble and soft-paste porcelain, Falconet reproduced his marble works including La Baigneuse and L’Amour menaçant (1757), en masse. These porcelain figures quickly became ubiquitous in domestic interiors and were placed alongside expensive sugar sculpture as the centrepieces of elite dining tables. The replication of whiteness – the primary characteristic aesthetically linking marble, porcelain and sugar – has been read as evidence of the prevailing importance of Academic sculpture and the explicit antique connotations of marble. However, the replication of these Eurocentric subjects in porcelain and sugar, both products of global trade networks, dramatically shifts their nexus of meaning. The rise of porcelain in the 18th century, known at the time as ‘white gold’, is a narrative deeply connected to the West’s desire to discover Chinese porcelain’s secret ingredient, kaolin. On the other hand, sugar was one of France’s most profitable commodities, relying on France’s colonial holdings in the Caribbean and their active participation in the Atlantic slave trade. The 18th century’s fetishisation of porcelain and the violent conditions of sugar’s production must be put in dialogue with the white classical forms adorning the dinner tables of the aristocratic elite. In doing so, this paper argues that the replication of canonical white marble forms in these global materials alludes to a deeper political and social ideology of a society attempting to assert ideas of racial difference and hierarchy while simultaneously representing the expanding global purview of 18th-century Europe.

Translation, Revolution and Reproduction: Printed images by and after Agostino Brunias in the French Atlantic World (c. 1779–1833)

Damiët Schneeweisz (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

This paper examines the production and circulation of printed images by and after Agostino Brunias (Italian, c. 1730–96) in the French Atlantic world at the turn of the 19th century, as political upheaval, underlying anxiety for independent American territory, and as the looming abolition of transatlantic slavery intensified. While Brunias’ softly hued scenes of West Indian life are increasingly of interest to scholars today, for whom they have prompted insightful readings of the colonial fabrication of the West Indies in visual culture, no comprehensive study of the printed images derived from the artist’s paintings exists. Yet, as this paper demonstrates, Brunias was involved with print culture in numerous ways, and his scenes of the West Indian islands – themselves contested spaces, whose rule shifted between the British, the French and the Dutch – were widely translated at the hands of French printmakers, among others. As Brunias’ images were translated into print, they not only established a popular (and persistent) visual representation of the French colonies at the height of the Haitian Revolution, but, in the material process of their making and dissemination, the prints themselves contributed to developing conceptions of race and skin colour. Looking in depth at this process and its material consequences, this paper considers the complex ways in which printed images shaped and complicated racial discourse in the French Atlantic world.

Afrique Noire, Afrique Blanche: Racialising the allegory of Africa during the Second Empire (1852–70)

Nancy Ba (Sorbonne, Paris)

Constantly reinterpreted, the allegories of the continents take various forms. Beyond the simple decorative motive, these allegories could be found in many places through different forms, thus shaping a particular image of the different continents and transcending mere questions of aesthetics. The allegory of Africa is of particular interest because of the 19th century’s scientific and artistic enthusiasm for Africa and the figure of the Black.

The colonial policy of the French Second Empire (1852–70) focused on this continent and created a favourable context for the study of the figure of the African, of Africa, and the renewal of its allegory. It is nourished by anthropological and racial theories that consolidated themselves within scientific societies and the narratives of travelling artists. Even though North Africa is considered an integral part of the African continent, a distinction was still made between Afrique Noire and Afrique Blanche. The allegory of this geographical unit, conventionally Black, also seemed to evolve according to the vision one sought to give of the continent. What then were the geographical and cultural boundaries of Africa? Was Africa only sub-Saharan? If so, how were artists supposed to racialise its allegory? How did France’s colonial policy influence the choice of the figure representing Africa?

Few studies have been conducted on the 19th century’s representation of Africa in its allegorical sense. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to fill a gap in this historiographical field and to observe how this allegory evolved according to colonial and scientific discourses.

Kréol Identities: Contemporary art and the colonial legacy in Réunion Island

Julia DeFabo (Independent scholar)

Contemporary artists in Réunion Island visually represent legacies of French colonialism regularly in their work. Taking Édouard Glissant’s philosophy of archipelagic thought as a theoretical framework, this paper explores how contemporary Réunionese artists engage with the questions: Who am I in relation to the Other? and Who are we? Their work challenges preconceived notions of what it means to be French, and in this case also Réunionese.

Réunion Island, located in the Western Indian Ocean, was uninhabited in the 16th century when the French claimed the territory. French colonisation of the island began in the 17th century. Réunion Island remained a French colony until 1946 when it became an overseas department. A population created from the forced migration of enslaved people and indentured servants – alongside French colonists – to the island informs what it means to be Kréol today. These identities are also entangled in the French colonial regime’s project of assimilation.

Contemporary artists address these legacies in varied ways. Three specific types of imagery form a case study: (1) representations of the island’s iconic red roadside shrines to Saint Expeditus, (2) references to the colonial sugar-based economy and (3) imagery that addresses stereotypes of island life. These three key examples illustrate how the French colonial legacy continues to influence longstanding traditions and collective memory in Réunion Island. They also reveal how the origins of such traditions are multiple.





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