Black Paris – Contradiction at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 + Introducing Laura

Edouard Manet – Olympia (foto Art Kicks Ass)
Eduard Manet – Olympia (foto Daily Art Magazine)

The Olympia Cat (foto Lunettes Rouges)

Olympia (foto Pinterest)

Olympia (foto Imgur)

Mark Lang – Collaborative Fiction (foto

Parcours Art (foto

Le scandale de la réalité, 1865 Nouveauté (foto

Black Olympa (foto Facbook)

Posing Modernity (foto

Posing Modernity (foto

Eduard Manet – Olympia (foto The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Olympia (foto Connaissance des Arts)

The Figuration of Scandal (foto jstor)

Eduard Manet as Olympia (foto Twitter)

Black Paris

An Investigation of the Visual Culture of Paris during the Mid to late 19th Century from the Perspective of the Black Artist

Contradiction at the Exposition Universelle of 1900

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a World’s Fair held in Paris, France, from 15 April to 12 November 1900, to celebrate the Achievements of the Past Century and to accelerate Development into the Next. This Exposition is Key in understanding the Contradiction of the French View and Treatment of Blacks.

The Paris Expo included a “Negro Exposition” (Exposition Nègres d’Amerique), during which American Frances Benjamin Johnston, a Friend of Booker T Washington, presented Photographs of his Black Students at the Hampton Institute. The Expo also Included Graphs, Charts, and Photographs of American Black Life. Partly Organized by Booker Washington and WEB Du Bois, this Exhibition aimed at Showing African Americans’ Positive Contributions to American Society.

The Exhibit of American Negroes, Exposition Universelle of 1900

Also included at the Paris Expo was a “Negro Village” (a Human Zoo) which was an Exhibit of Africans in their So Called ‘Natural’ or ‘Primitive’ State.The Humans were in Cages and Often Nude or Semi Nude. The Displays often Emphasized the Cultural Differences between Europeans of Western Civilization and Non European Peoples. It Furthered the Notion of Primitivism of Africans and was Predicated on Scientific Racism.

Ota Benga,  a human exhibit, in 1906

These Two Conflicting Presentations, One which Highlights the Progression of Blacks in America and the Other, which Perpetuates the Savagery of African Cultures, reflects a Bizarre Dynamic in the French Perspective of Black Americans and Africans.

Introducing Laura

Olympia, 1852-53 by Edouard Manet is a 51.4 x 74.8 inch oil painting on canvas currently being housed at the Doge Palace in Venice, Italy.  In the artwork, the artist includes a depiction of a black maid, Laura, which epitomizes the ‘Hottentot Venus’, perpetuates the notion of black female hyper-sexuality, and the subservience of the black character construct.

Figure (1) Edouard Manet – Olympia, 1852 – 1853

Historically, the ‘Hottentot’ was a designation given to the native people of southwestern Africa known as the Khoikhoi by 17th century European immigrants.  Affixing the pseudonym ‘Hottentot Venus’ to Sarah Baartman, a former Khoikhoi slave exhibited in 19th century European ‘freak shows’, has since made its meaning derogatory.  Manet’s depiction of Laura corresponds to the physical descriptions and representations of Sarah Baartman.  In Olympia (Fig. 1), Laura stands presenting a bouquet of flowers to a nude reclined Olympia.  The outline of Laura’s body begins at the knee of Olympia and extends well beyond her feet.  Laura’s body appears to be twice the size of Olympia.   Manet’s decision to illustrate Laura as such a large figure suggests that he is appropriating the form of an African woman with steatopygia seen in Geoffrey Saint-Hilaraire and Frederic Cuvier, Histoire Naturelle Des Mammiferes,1834 (Fig. 2) and caricatures of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ (Fig. 3) distributed throughout Europe ahead of the arrival of the ‘freak show’.

Figure (2) [Espèce Humaine] Femme de Tace Bochismann, [de face], Illustration

Figure (3) Love and Beauty – Sartjee the Hottentot Venus, October 1822, Satirical Print

Ethnographic museums and galleries were quite popular in France especially amongst artists who visited them for both inspiration and pleasure.  These institutions had amassed vast collections of artifacts and images of Africa, and other ‘exotic’ cultures, which included photographs and illustrations of people.  Manet would have had access to these facilities yet his decision to illustrate Laura in such a stereotypical fashion suggests that he was not interested in depicting Laura as an individual but as a construct that adhered to the popular image of the ‘Hottentot’.  This decision may also reflect Manet’s desire to appeal to the French notion of black primitiveness or inferiority.  Instead of depicting a black woman whose appearance bore any resemblance to a white European, Manet chose a form that represents a small population of Africans with a unique ‘primitive’ genetic characteristic.  This decision suggests that Manet is reinforcing the notion of blacks as the ‘other’.

Laura as a type adheres to historical perceptions of blacks as morally unrestrained and indecent.  For the black female, immorality was evident in her acts of alleged sexual permissiveness.   In fact, 18th century French writer, Guillaume Thomas François Raynal labeled black females as “primitive, and therefore more sexually intensive” (Gilman, 83).  While Olympia was the first nude to represent modern reality, Manet does not depict Laura in the same contemporary manner.  The artist adorns her in clothing from a previous century.  The depiction of Laura in such an archaic manner suggests that Manet is labeling her ‘primitive’ to associate and heighten her presence with the popular notion of black hyper-sexuality.  Another account that goes to further the notion of black sexual promiscuity originates in the writings of 12th century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela.  He writes, “at Seba on the river Pishon…is a people…who like animals, eat of the herbs that grow on the banks of the Nile and in the fields.  They go about naked and have not the intelligence of ordinary men.  They cohabit with their sisters and anyone they can find…And these are the Black slaves, the sons of Ham” (Tudela, 68). Here the author attests that he witnesses blacks engaging in incest, which implies deviant sexual tendencies and primitive behavior.  Benjamin of Tudela provides one of the earliest written accounts of associating black slaves with the biblical narrative of Ham and Noah where the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins.  This notion was advanced only sporadically during the Middle Ages, but it became increasingly common during the 18th and early 19th century.

The idea of black hyper-sexuality is so popular in France that it becomes the subject of several pseudoscientific examinations.  For example, 18th century French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc De Buffon examines the matter and credits the black with a lascivious sexual appetite that encouraged black women to copulate with apes (Gilman, 83).  Buffon based his claims on the idea that blacks are the antithesis to whites.  If whites are able to maintain moral fortitude then blacks, particularly females, were unable to withstand succumbing to debase sexual desires.  Additionally, blacks were placed on the lowest rung of humanity so it would be easy for Buffon and others to argue the bestial tendencies of blacks.  This antithesis plays out on Manet’s canvas.  Olympia, albeit a prostitute, is polished white and sits upon white linen, Laura on the other hand is very dark and is positioned against a dark green background.  Olympia gazes forward at her visitor (the viewer) while Laura is locked in a perpetually ignored gaze with Olympia.  The setting also corroborates Laura’s sole purpose in this composition; she is there to confirm Olympia’s unspoken proposition of sex.

Figure (4) Titan –Venus of Urbino, 1538

Texts confirm and it is clear that Manet models Olympia from Titan, Venus of Urbino, 1538.  One aspect that is of interest in this examination of sexual suggestion is the flowers that appear in both paintings.  Venus holds a posy of roses in her right hand and covers her pudenda with her left.  Similarly, Manet depicts Olympia covering her pudenda with her left hand; however, he removes the flowers from her possession and gives them to Laura.  This variation suggests that the flowers bear some monumental significance in conveying a quality about the possessor.   Because flowers are the reproductive organs of flowering plants I would argue that Manet gives the bouquet to Laura ensuring that she and her blackness bear the responsibility of introducing the sexual element to the composition.  This decision would support Manet’s claim that “his painting a part of an established tradition through its many references to other paintings of the female nude” (Adler, 61).

Figure (5) Anne Louis Girodet – Portrait of Citizen Belley, 1797

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the use of blacks in European art and literature became popular.   One use of black figures in European art would be to communicate political statements.  For example, Anne-Louis Girodet’s, Portrait of Citizen Belley, 1797 (figure 5) was commissioned to communicate statements of French humanitarianism and the victories of abolition and racial equality (Gilman, 25).  Another use of black figures was to demonstrate artist’s skills and technical ability.  Théodore Géricault’s, Raft of Medusa, 1819 (figure 6) and Eugène Delacroix’s, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827(figure 7) illustrate these artists careful study of non-stereotypical black figures.  Even though, the characters are placed in violent and sexualized settings, the depictions of these figures do not adhere to the type explored by Manet in Olympia.  These works provide Manet with a reference of artists removing black characters from a racist vernacular sometime implemented in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. 

Figure (6) Théodore Géricault –  Raft of Medusa, 1819

Figure (7) Eugène Delacroix – The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827

Conversely, in the aforementioned centuries black figures would also be used to operate as metaphors for sex and subservience.  For example, William Hogarth’s, A Harlot’s Progress, 1731 (figure 8) employs the black character as a symbol of illicit sexual activity.  The young black male servant is present during the decline of Moll Hackabout, the mistress to a Jewish merchant and he is also present in the brothel, the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden (Gilman, 79).  In every reference to illicit sexual activity the black servant is present.

Figure (8) William Hogarth – A Harlot’s Progress, 1731

Manet’s decision to place Laura in a similar situation suggests that he has taken note of the use of blacks in conveying the sexual desires of white Europeans.   This idea is further developed in an erotic print by Franz von Bayros entitled The Servant, c.1890 (figure 9).   The artist depicts a white female figure that appears to be undressing.  The figures back is exposed and she uses her arm to cover her bare chest.  Next to the figure is a nude, ‘primitive’ looking, black female.

Figure (9) Franz von Bayros – The Servant, circa 1890

She stares directly at the white female and has her left hand on her back which Sander Gilman, Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago,  suggests could ‘imply a similarity between the sexuality of the two’ (81).  Similarly, Manet has given Laura a gaze that is fixed solely on Olympia suggesting a similarity as in seen in Bayros work.

Despite black figures being ennobled in earlier compositions, Manet chooses to reverse course and resurrect the sexualized subservient black.  Not only is Manet’s Olympia an important work in terms of the depiction of contemporary nudes, it is also crucial in understanding the symbolic roles of black characters in nineteenth century European art and the role of black people in nineteenth century European society.


Adler, Marcus Nathan,The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, London, Oxford Press, 1907.
Archer, Straw Petrine, Negrophilia: Avant Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920’s, New York, Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Gilman, Sander L, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985.

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