We were there: the “Black Models” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay


The “Black models: from Géricault to Matisse” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay explores the representation of Black figures in French visual arts in a late 18th century colonial context. The exhibition is very large and rich, and a minimum of two hours is needed to properly take advantage of what it has to offer, and at least three if you wish to understand the issues it tackles. The richness of the art exhibited is worth the trip: The Raft of the Medusa and the secrets it holds, as well as Study of a Model by Théodore Géricault, renowned Olympia by Manet, Turkish Bath by Gérôme, among many others. And that is only for the paintings… Indeed, other types of arts are also exhibited: sculptures, poems such as Baudelaire’s to his muse Jeanne Duval, short documentary films, and of course music ranging from Jazz to Harlem Renaissance.

Going through the exhibition leaves you pondering upon the controversies around Black models in Art History, especially in the 18th century. But the exhibition isn’t limited to the Géricault-Matisse era, and its chronology continues all the way to mid-20th century. Some late-20th and 21st century art is exhibited near the end of the visit. In addition to the “Classical” Art History as well as other arts parts of the exhibition, a space was dedicated to the Circus, which was a very memorable time in Black History, an important and remarkable thing to note, given the fact that it is rarely presented nor studied. The exhibition not only looks at Art and the iconography of Black models, but it also looks at Black History and its major events in a more historical approach.

The content of the exhibition is there for sure… but what about the explanations and contextualizations of the art in itself? Compared to most exhibitions lately, it is true that there are more textual elements, chronology and context. However, certain historical points could have been further explained than by only using timelines. The uprisings in Saint-Domingue by slaves were brought up multiple times, without ever really giving an explanation of what happened during the actual events, which is even more unfortunate given the fact that it is a part of History that’s rarely talked about… It’s not enough to just name an event, its importance must be known. This is a missed opportunity to educate people on that subject.

Despite the richness of the exhibition, as well as the fact that there are more textual explanations than in others, very few answers are given to the existing debates around Blackness in Art and History. No firm choice was made to take responsibility for and to condemn how Black people were treated in the colonies as well as later in circuses. It is obvious that it’s only to leave it up to the visitors to make that choice. But shouldn’t it be necessary to take a firm stance when it comes to crimes against humanity and discriminations?

All in all, the Musée d’Orsay must be recognized for hosting such an exhibition, exploring contemporary and subject of debate themes, allowing access to numerous works of art. The only issue, which is unfortunate, is that the artistic viewpoints highlighted in this exhibition are those of the Whites… even when the exhibition itself is called Black model. It does indeed mainly revolve around White artists, leaving space for only a few Black artists. A much more important voice could’ve been given to them instead. Considering the richness of the exhibition, that’s a shame. And even though all the elements needed to point out this socio-anthropological issue were reunited, White artists were still put in the spotlight.

All in the info about the exhibition are available on the Musée du Quai d’Orsay website

written by Inès, translated by Sophie