Theodore Gericault, Painting Black Bodies
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Theodore Gericault, Painting Black Bodies

Confrontations and Contradictions

Albert Alhadeff

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eBook - ePub

Theodore Gericault, Painting Black Bodies

Confrontations and Contradictions

Albert Alhadeff

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About This Book

This book examines Théodore Géricault's images of black men, women and children who suffered slavery's trans-Atlantic passage in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including his 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa.

The book focuses on GĂ©ricault's depiction of black people, his approach towards slavery, and the voices that advanced or denigrated them. By turning to documents, essays and critiques, both before and after Waterloo (1815), and, most importantly, GĂ©ricault's own oeuvre, this study explores the fetters of slavery that Gericault challenged—alongside a growing number of abolitionists—overtly or covertly.

This book will be of interest to scholars in art history, race and ethnic studies and students of modernism.

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1 Black Bodies

An Ignoble Body, A Black Body

“... pas un trait d’hĂ©roisme et de grandeur ... rien d’honorable”1—“nothing memorable, heroic or honorable” in this canvas was the Gazette de France’s indignant dismissive response to GĂ©ricault’s Raft of the Medusa (Plate 1).2 For the Gazette and the press in general, GĂ©ricault’s oil, a canvas of grand dimensions on view in the late summer of 1819 in the Louvre’s impressive Salon carĂ©e, was shorn of all redeeming and uplifting qualities. Depicted in a scene of men lost at sea on a makeshift raft, GĂ©ricault’s exhausted survivors, mired in hopelessness, lacked all moral fiber. Unable to transcend their plight, they deserved their fate.3 However, few if any of the Salon’s visitors studying the Raft observed that far from jettisoning art’s traditional tropes of heroism and honor, GĂ©ricault had vested them in a different guise, an unfamiliar face to GĂ©ricault’s cohorts and one they could neither discern nor accept. Indeed, if the Louvre’s visitors could not see the Raft’s challenge it was because its moral fiber was couched in a black body, one they deemed ignoble.
The black body they could not see was the signaling black, a dark-toned muscular figure set at the forward-most end of the raft (Plate 2). Capping a pyramidal rise of desperate figures clustered about his person, GĂ©ricault’s apical black waves a scrap of cloth before him hoping to attract a passing vessel that appears on the far horizon. With several of the raft’s survivors at his side echoing his stance, he faces the sea, perched precariously on an upright barrel, drawing attention to himself with his ragged bunting. Clearly visible to us, he was evidently invisible to the Gazette and to the other papers who reviewed the Raft—invisible, that is, in that he does not find a place in their accounts of the Salon,4 an omission that may have its roots in the waver’s color. Black, a slave or perhaps a former slave, surely an Other, he needs to be discounted.5 This in effect is the problem we face—namely, to understand the racial divide that distanced the races as whites enjoyed the fruits of their chatelled-slave labor. Indeed, the many visitors milling about the Raft were hardly aware of the system’s extreme brutalities to acknowledge them.6
With blacks reduced to chattel, it was all but impossible to assign a trait d’hĂ©roisme et de grandeur to a man of color. In the rare instance when GĂ©ricault’s “hailer” is cited, as in the Journal de Paris’ review, he is dismissed as “that man” (cet homme),7 a bland moniker insuring his anonymity. In effect, the Journal de Paris’ man could be any man on the Raft, he could be either “white” or “black.” But black he is! And that fact is fortuitously forgotten. Thus, by denying his color, that which indelibly isolates him from the other naufragĂ©s (shipwrecked survivors), his signal role is denied 
 a denial which in turn denies GĂ©ricault’s focus on blacks, a central tenet of his grand canvas.
Indeed for the Journal de Paris “the man’s” efforts will get him nowhere—“useless and exhausting,”8 is how the paper phrases it. As those who repudiated people of color never tired of saying, blacks can never amount to much. Surely, their endeavors are doomed to failure. Not only for the Journal but for GĂ©ricault’s peers in general, failure was synonymous with people of color. Thus, GĂ©ricault’s apical figure had to be demeaned, downgraded. Hear for instance the voice of one such critic—Antoine-Hilarion KĂ©ratry’s is speaking. The year is 1820:
Two or three sailors, worn out, climb atop a barrel, and held by other wretches, themselves fainting with weakness, strive to wave a few ragged cloths before them signaling their distress.
Deux ou trois matelots extĂ©nuĂ©s de fatigue, montĂ©s sur une tonne, et qui soutenus par d‘autres malheureux, eux-mĂȘmes dĂ©faillans, Ă©ssaient d’agiter, dans les airs, quelques lambeaux en signe de leur dĂ©tresse.9
Hence KĂ©ratry’s pathetic image: Exhausted, expiring wretches massed about the Raft’s pinnacle. “[W]orn out,” sailors too weak to stand—a moving scenario, indeed, but it is not GĂ©ricault’s. Where KĂ©ratry focuses on exhaustion, GĂ©ricault focuses on elation; and where KĂ©ratry’s sailors barely stand, GĂ©ricault’s apical black surges forward, invigorated by hope, inscribed with life.
With KĂ©ratry replacing GĂ©ricault’s signaling figure with two or three sailors (deux ou trois matelots), one might suppose that KĂ©ratry saw what he saw because he could not entertain the thought that a canvas of such magnitude could be capped with a man of color—and just one man at that! Clearly, KĂ©ratry felt he had to down-play the latter’s importance—he had to lose him in a larger crowd, depict him (and the men gathered about him) as spent, drained of life. By emphasizing the hailer’s “weakness” KĂ©ratry undercuts his agency. Indeed, how can a man deemed hopeless lead a surge of hope—a question that for KĂ©ratry and for those who shared his racial biases was more than rhetorical.
KĂ©ratry’s sense that Africans were incapable and could not possibly take a leading role in any undertaking, not just in the Raft, needs to be underlined, for negrophobia was part of the temper of the day. A case in point is a text from 1819 and one contemporary with the Raft. A seemingly judiciously tempered tract on the Negroid race, it is in effect a thinly disguised biased surge of anti-black sentiment. Addressed to a professional audience of eminent medical practioners, and published in the SociĂ©te des mĂ©decins et de chirurgiens’s journal, its author, J. J. Virey (1775–1847), a doctor of note, bases his arguments—or rather, his racial theories—on a host of past and present scientific profiles by physiologists, anthropologists and other men of learning. Buttressed by numerous scholarly pronouncements and by impressive Latin sources, Virey launches into a long disquisition (it runs for more than fifty pages, one we will often return to in these pages) denigrating blacks, arguing that there “are two distinct and principal species that comprise humanity: the white species and the black species” (l’espĂšce blanche et l’espĂšce nĂšgre)10—a clear division that demarcates the races, with the latter, as Virey goes on to argue, forever indulging in “the most dissolute excesses; his soul 
 wrapped up in gross animal appetites.”11 Hence Virey’s conclusion: with its “superior intelligence,”12 it is only natural that l’espĂšce blanche “govern all creatures.” And
as the God-head has willed that the weak and doltish submit to those more powerful 
 just as women submit to men, and youth to old age, likewise le nùgre, less intelligent than whites, must bow down (doit se courber) and submit to his [the white man’s] presence—just as the ox or the horse, in spite of all their strength, heed man’s will; thus has it been proscribed by destiny.
si l’ordre Ă©ternel a voulu que les faibles, les incapables d’esprit se soumissent aux plus forts, aux plus intelligens 
 comme la femme Ă  l’homme, le jeune au plus ĂągĂ©; de mĂȘme le nĂšgre, moins intelligent que le blanc, doit se courber sous celui-ci, tout comme le boeuf ou le cheval, malgrĂ© leur force, deviennent les sujets de l’homme; ainsi la prescript une Ă©ternelle destineĂ©.13
Virey’s voice (just one learned voice among many spearheading an objective analysis of le nĂšgre) was heard well into the nineteenth century14—and with it a damning view of black people, one that reverberated in response to GĂ©ricault’s Raft. Mid-nineteenth-century appraisals therefore did not just disparage GĂ©ricault’s signaling black, they were averse to his presence, to his race. Ernest Chesneau’s essay of 1861 on GĂ©ricault and the modern movement for the Revue europĂ©enne illustrates the problem. Abiding by tradition, Chesneau (1833–1890) reminds his readers that canvases of grand scale (pompiers) favor a centre moral, a moral center that holds the picture together. The Raft, says Chesneau, has such a unifying focus, a pivotal point: The centre moral de son [GĂ©ricault’s] tableau, c’est l’Argus15 (The moral center of his canvas is the Argus). But the Argus, the rescue vessel, is far away, a speck on the horizon. Barely visible, its presence is in doubt. Even the Raft’s naufragĂ©s questioned its presence. Given its elusive station, might not Chesneau’s central focus better fit a tangible body, a corporeal entity that caps the composition: GĂ©ricault’s impressive black? Still, in spite of his seeming indifference, Chesneau never denies the latter’s presence. Hence Chesneau:
There, a black (un nĂšgre), held by his fellow castaways, has raised himself up on an empty barrel; he waves a ragged cloth against the ocean’s winds in a desperate attempt to signal the crew of the brick [l’Argus], whose hazy silhouette those among the least forsaken naufragĂ©s have discerned on the horizon.
LĂ , un nĂšgre, soutenu par ses compagnons de dĂ©tresse, s’est hissĂ© sur un tonneau vide; il agite au vent de la mer un lambeau d’étoffe. C’est un signal dĂ©sepĂ©rĂ© adressĂ© Ă  l’équipage du brick, dont les moins dĂ©faits d’entre les naufragĂ©s ont distinguĂ© la grise silhouette Ă  l’horizon.16
True, although Chesneau concedes the hailer’s presence and his color—a concession that borders on confession—he will not give him pride of place, the Raft’s centre mo...

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