The Black Model, Portraits, Naming and Renaming

Charcoal portrait with body in light gray, by William Eaton

Please note that this is an eccentric version of “Image of the Week,” insofar as my own images are a brief moment amid the following comments and translation regarding a major show of great artists’ work. And most of the images shown here are not mine!

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d'une negresse (1800), Musée du Louvre 

Someone who was excited about the show “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” sent me from her cellphone links to articles about the show.[1] One of the links was to an ARTnews piece about how the Musée d’Orsay had retitled the most prominent work in the show: Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800; image at right). In Paris in 2019 it is called Portrait de Madeleine, Madeleine being the name of the domestic servant who served as the model for the black woman shown in the painting.[2] This news led me to the relevant French Wikipedia article, the relevant part of which I have now translated into English (text below).

I am here to say that this is a rather more complex matter than either the renamers or the news media may have realized. For one, the changes to the painting’s title could be seen as a kind of white-washing of the history of this painting. One may begin to think of the renaming of things described by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or has it ever been thus: human beings don’t try to learn from history, but rather to get it to tell the stories they want to hear?

Portrait, male model at Figureworks, Brooklyn, January 2019, by William EatonBenoist wasn’t trying to paint a portrait of her brother-in-law’s servant Madeleine; she was painting a portrait of a type: une négresse (a Negro woman). Further, it has been proposed that Benoist’s real “model” for the painting was Jacques Louis David’s Portrait de Madame Charles-Louis Trudaine, a white woman who Benoist, as it were, did a version of with black skin.[3]

An obvious parallel: in the late nineteenth century Degas was not trying to sculpt Marie Van Goethem, the model for the now world-famous Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. He was sculpting a sort of anthropological specimen, which he exhibited, in tandem with portraits of criminals, in a glass case, in her “native” costume, and showing the short forehead then associated with the criminal classes. To rename this sculpture Marie Van Goethem might make Degas seem like a nicer or more twenty-first century guy, but it would undermine—the already quite undermined!—popular understanding of this work of art.[4]

I am interested, too, in this idea of renaming the painting after its model. I often say of my own work that I do not draw nude “figures,” but rather portraits of people who are naked (examples: dual image above right and charcoal sketch at very top). And I would be glad to title these works with the first name of the model (the surname being left off in the interest of privacy); however, it is not at all clear that the models—or certainly some of them—would want their names on these “portraits.” For money they have modeled as “types”—typically as types of human physical configurations—and that the result might be some version, some portrait of “them,” could be, at the very least, unnerving.

Lucian Freud is perhaps the best known painter of naked portraits, and, with just a few exceptions, he did not attach the model’s name to the picture, using titles such as Naked Portrait with Green Chair, Sunday Morning – Eight Legs, and Irish Woman on a Bed. Francis Bacon (image of “Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne” at right) preferred working from photographs of people because he did not want his “models” to see and be upset by “the fact of them” that was taking shape on his canvas.[5] From this perspective, I should revise my earlier statement: I do portraits of people who are naked, but my goal is not to capture the essence of some Adelaide, let’s call her, who is modeling for me, but rather to use some mix of the essence of Adelaide, the essence of me, the circumstances of the moment, the effects of the chosen materials, etc., to create a portrait of a woman who I do not insist have anything to do with some “real” Adelaide. Perhaps this is like a fiction writer who might use someone s/he knows, or several people, to create a character who seems “real to life.” And the “model” might get angry, sue for misportrayal, and the writer would answer: But my Adelaide is not meant to be you!

John Berger observed that “only in fiction can we share another person’s specific experiences.”[6] This is to say that it would be impossible for me to paint a portrait of Adelaide, but I can use a hired Adelaide as a sort of jumping off point—a model!—for a portrait. Heading in a different direction, Lucian Freud once proposed: “Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait, a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual. . . . When someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden.” When I went the other day to an exhibition the other day of his “monumental portraits,” however, I did not get this impression. I saw a lot of flesh and wonderful, luxurious, almost still liquid paint (hardly visible in images on screens); but as for the models hiding nothing? Their facial expressions and eyes gave me the same feeling I get looking at strangers on the sidewalks of Manhattan: it’s stunning, if not overwhelming, that there are all these others whose heads are as full of thoughts and feelings as mine is; but as for what those thoughts and feelings might be . . . I can only guess at a fraction of them. So much remains hidden!

In the gallery label (dated May 2007) for the Naked Portrait whose image is above right, the Tate museum offers:

Freud is famous for his supposedly objective images of people, particularly naked women. Here the figure is shown lying awkwardly on a bed, with nothing else visible except the stool. It is as if she is an animal on the dissecting table. This feeling is reinforced by the harsh, artificial lighting. The title suggests that this is a painting of a particular person, setting it apart from anonymous or generalised conventional nudes. But Freud’s inclusion of his tools in the foreground reminds us that we are, in fact, looking at the artificial setting of an artist’s studio.

Thomas Eakins, Miss Alice Kurtz, 1903, Fogg Art Museum, HarvardThe Philadelphia-banker father of Alice Kurtz, who sat for Thomas Eakins’s portrait Miss Alice Kurtz (image at right), may well have questioned whether this was an appropriate title for the painting. Some years ago the Fogg Museum’s “gallery text” accompanying this work stated that the father complained that Eakins “had reduced his healthy and athletic daughter to ‘a bag of bones, an anatomical sketch.’” While the painting shows few bones and is hardly a sketch, we can understand the complaint. The painter has sketched, in the sense of proposed or imagined, something of the insides of this young woman (or of a projection of Eakins onto and into her). The bones here are above all psychological—a sadness, a pensiveness, an ambivalence. The 2019 gallery text, as accessed online, reads: “Thomas Eakins painted during a period in American history when the roles of men and women were at once rigidly prescribed and actively questioned; he explored questions of gender throughout his career.”[7]

Is such re-contextualization now required in order to justify the continued exhibition, in American university art museums, of work by white men who self-identify as heterosexual? And we, having come to the end of our road, may also ask: Is Portrait de Madeleine a good title for Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting?

— Comments, translation and two drawings by William Eaton

Translation of Titre du tableau, segment of Portrait d’une négresse article accessed May 23, 2019

Please note that, while I was translating this short text—in the space of just a few minutes—the original text French, posted online, was changed. And so it may well have changed again since then.

Title of the painting

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson, Portrait of J.B. Belley, Deputy for Saint-Domingue, circa 1797The 1800 Salon booklet . . . presents the painting with the title Portrait d’une négresse. Thus Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s work, by both its title and subject, makes reference to a notable precedent: the portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley painted by Girodet (image at right). This painting had made an impression on contemporaries as it was the first portrait of a black person to be shown publicly. Originally exhibited [at] the 1798 Salon, it was entitled Portrait d’un nègre. It was customary for artists to briefly describe the work they were showing in the Salon booklet; this allows us to conclude that Girodet himself had chosen the title of his painting. The word “nègre” was commonly used at the time to designate people of color, but la Société des amis des Noirs opposed the use of this title because it referred to the slave trade. This led Girodet to rename his painting le citoyen Belley ex-représentant des colonies.

Unlike Girodet’s painting, the change of the original title of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting to Portrait d’une femme noire did not come from the artist, but was effected in the early 2000s by the Louvre, which notably showed the work with this new title at the exhibition Portrait publics, portraits privés, held at Le Grand Palais in 2007 . . . For Marianne Levy, author of a biography of Benoist, the Louvre took liberties in modifying the title of the work pour des raisons consensuelles [in an effort to conform to the spirit of the times].

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1963), Musée d'OrsayIn the exhibition “Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse,” held at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019, the painting is named Portrait de Madeleine; the curator’s note does not neglect to mention the previous titles. The painting is featured—being the first one shown at the entrance to the exhibit, and thus becoming, for the journalist Mathilde Serrell « une nouvelle porte d’entrée dans l’histoire de l’art et des représentations » [a new gateway into the history of art and of portrayals]. On the upper floors of the Musée d’Orsay, the name Madeleine is one of the thirteen showcased in a light installation by American artist Glenn Ligon.[8] Madeleine is there alongside other black models, such as Laure, the [model for the] servant in Édouard Manet’s Olympia (image above right). In her book Une Africaine au Louvre, published in 2019, art historian Anne Lafont for the first time gives the model [for Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting] a biography, which establishes her identity and presents her as a freed slave born in Guadeloupe and subsequently employed as a servant by Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s brother-in-law.


[1] The show has moved from the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it will be on exhibit through July 21, 2019. The French title is “Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse,” which indicates an expansion of the time frame: from Manet back to Géricault. We may note here, too, an odd phenomenon of our twenty-first century: people send you links to articles they have not read, and then, if you’re foolish or out of step (like me), you read these things and may have strong reactions to the contents, while the sender is blithely sending other links to other people.

[2] Musée d’Orsay Retitles Marie-Guillemine Benoist Painting for ‘Black Models’ Show [Updated] by The Editors of ARTnews, March 26, 2019.

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait de Madame Charles-Louis Trudaine (unfinished, 1791-92), Musée du Louvre[3] The source here is a footnote in the aforementioned article Portrait d’une négresse. The footnote gives as a reference James Smalls, « Slavery is a Woman: “Race,” Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800) » [archive], Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 2004 : “It has been observed that Benoist’s portrait is in fact ‘a negative image of the pale Mme. Trudaine’ depicted by David sometime in the late eighteenth century.” (Image of David’s unfinished painting is at right.)

[4] For those readers of French who wish to explore this subject further: Camille Laurens, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Stock, 2017). Partial image of twentieth-century reproduction of Degas’s work, and without the surrounding glass case, is below right.

Edgar Degas, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, partial image of refabrication, Musée d'Orsay[5] Sebastian Smee, The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art (Random House, 2017), 51: “The subject’s presence inhibited him [Bacon], he said, because ‘if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.’”

The Freud painting titles were found at the show Lucian Freud: Monumental, held at the Acquavella Galleries in New York in April and May 2019.

[6] John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Pantheon Books, 1980), 27. Originally published 1965. The quotation from Lucian Freud is from a text posted by the Acquavella gallery, and this is also where I saw the portraits. See note 5 above. Tate museum post: Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait, 1972-3.

[7] Click for the full gallery text.

[8] Glenn Ligon is an African-American conceptual artist whose work explores race and language, among other subjects.


Potentially of Interest to Avid Readers

Names & Naming—Identity, Self-Determination, Power, by Steven A. Burr, Zeteo, August 30, 2016

Renior, Love, by William Eaton, Zeteo, May 22, 2015

Valéry, Landscapes, The Whole Human, by William Eaton, Zeteo, May 22, 2019

The dual image of the man, with red highlights, was previously used as one of the images for Delicious thoughts Pensamientos deliciosos Pensées délicieuses Pensieri deliziosi Вкусные мысли, Montaigbakhtinian, March 25, 2019.


    1. Merci pfelep, et c’était un plaisir de voir quelques-uns de vos images en ligne. En particulier “Another Back Study” — le badigeon de blanc sur du papier kraft — parfait ! – William

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