The Student News Site of Los Osos High School

The Grizzly Gazette

The Grizzly Gazette

The Grizzly Gazette

The Portrait of Madeline

In the world-renowned Louvre, located in Paris, a half-length portrait hangs in the museum’s Room 935. Only measuring two feet with a width of 0.65 meters, the portrait itself has left a notable mark on Western art. 

Painted in 1800 by French Neoclassical painter Marie-Guillmemine Benoist, “The Portrait of Madeleine” has produced a variety of reactions and interpretations due to the unusual focus of the portrait: a Black woman.

Bernoist’s portrait has been the topic of discussion and debate since its first exhibition in 1800 at the Salon Carré. At the time of its exhibit, critics and the French public were perplexed and outraged at Bernoist’s decision to portray a Black woman who doesn’t appear to be in a state of servitude. One French critic of a conservative newspaper described the portrait as “noirceur”, which translates to “black stain”. 

This harsh reaction is due to Benoist’s decision to create a portrait that strays from Western European art conventions, depicting a Black woman who appears to be free of racial and gender stereotypes, creating a politically charged subject matter that reflects the social and racial issues within the French diaspora. 

The young Black woman is seated in an armchair, staring directly at the viewer with an enigmatic expression. 

Her hair is wrapped in an intricate headdress made out of a simple white fabric that appears to be the same material used for her clothes; she gathers the top half in her arms to reveal her right breast. 

Bernoist’s painting is consistent with the growing wave of Neoclassical realism within France and throughout Europe. The chosen colors and the simple garment coincide with post-revolutionary French ideals and outlook on the position of women in society. 

Whether intentional or not, Benoist’s painting embodies a multitude of artistic viewpoints and ideas surrounding race and gender and how they interacted with each other in early nineteenth-century France.

Slavery had already been illegal by the time of the painting’s creation and exhibit in 1800 due to the 1794 emancipation decree. However, the newly elected emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, whose first wife had been the daughter of a wealthy West Indie plantation owner, was already proposing acts that would reinstate slavery in the French colonies, succeeding in 1802. 

In the centuries prior to painting, for the majority of European art, especially portraiture, Black figures were largely exoticized and sexualized, rendered in submissive roles or a state of service to White figures, reinforcing their racial superiority. 

When Marguerite Deurbroucq’s portrait was created in 1754, her wealth and status as a wife of a successful French merchant were asserted by being drawn next to an enslaved Black woman. The unidentified woman stood in the left corner behind Deurbroucq, holding a bowl of sugar for the cup of chocolate in Deurbroucq’s hand. 

Not only does the presence of the enslaved Black woman highlight the vast wealth that came with her husband’s proposal in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but it also highlights the colonial products such as the sugar that European elites consumed during this era. Deurbroucq drinking chocolate with sugar while her servant waits behind her symbolizes the economic commodities of the French colonies, which were slaves and sugar. 

This representation of black figures within the world of European portraiture was a standard and made these enslaved people appear as complements to their racially superior, wealthier, White counterparts.

Benoist’s portrait, however, objects to this standard, by painting Madeleine with realistic dark brown skin that contrasts the dull background, he emphasizes the Black woman as the desirable subject.

Many historians and scholars have focused on the identity of the sitter, concluding that she may have been a domestic slave, a part of Benoist’s brother’s in-laws’ property that lived in Guadalupe between the years of 1780-1790. Madeleine came to France after slavery was abolished in 1794. 

It is unknown why or how Madeleine ended up being painted by Benoist, but it is highly probable that Madeleine did not have any influence over the way she was portrayed in comparison to Benoist’s main clientele of wealthy, fashionable, and bourgeois women. 

The Portrait of Madeleine captured a brief moment amidst the abolishment of slavery in France and its impact on the African diaspora within the colonies, rejecting the traditional White gaze that objectified, eroticized, and exploited Black bodies. Benoist’s artistic choices highlighted the beauty and humanity that Madeleine possessed.

Donate to The Grizzly Gazette

Your donation will support the student journalists of Los Osos High School. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Donate to The Grizzly Gazette