The Evolution of the Black Sitter: From Ingres to Lisa Brice
Lisa Brice’s work, ‘Untitled’ (2020), currently on display at Charleston alongside a new series of works, recalls a sequence of paintings that came before it: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ ‘Odalisque à l’Esclave’ [Odalisque with Slave] (1839), Édouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863) and Félix Vallotton’s ‘La Blanche et La Noire’ [The Black and the White] (1913).
With these three paintings observed in chronological order, a transformation in the role of the Black figure is seen. She becomes a more and more prominent character within the compositions, arguably assuming the position of the protagonist by Brice’s painting.
Ingres’ painting is typically Orientalist. It is a constructed image of a scene that evokes the notions of Middle Eastern cultural differences and “mystery” for the 19th century Parisian viewer. This is achieved through the inclusion of non-specific wall decorations and floor tiles, the oud-like instrument being played by the figure on the left, and the hookah in the bottom right, for instance.
The black figure is shown in the background on the right-hand side of the scene. She is dressed in a turban and brightly coloured clothing that corresponds with the patterned walls and floor, and contrasts with the sheer white garment that half-shrouds the body of the protagonist, a reclining white woman.
In the dimly lit background, with her head turned away from the scene, the Black figure stands rigidly with her hands clasped, in attendance of the white figures. It is a pose that dissociates her from the erotic scene in the foreground. She is in the painting almost as an aesthetic foil, to enhance the paleness of her counterparts in the foreground. Her clothing and her pose, as well as her skin colour, indicate her subsidiary status to the other figures in the painting. She appears almost as part of the furniture, divorced from the actions of the white protagonists.
‘…the Black woman becomes progressively closer to the viewer, going from tertiary figure to primary figure. This movement, which culminates in Brice’s sketch, encourages a consideration of the (rarely highlighted) evolving role of Black sitters…’
By Manet’s painting, the Black attendant has been brought forward in the picture plane. She still remains behind the reclining nude white woman though, presenting her flowers from an admirer.
The Black sitter in this painting, as a result of Dr Denise Murrell’s research, has been identified as a woman named Laure, who lived in the 9th Arrondisement near the artist’s studio. Here, again, the gaze of the Black figure (Laure in this case) is averted from the viewer. The white sitter, a model and artist identified as Victorine Meurent, engages the viewer with a direct confrontational gaze, as opposed to the averted gazes of all three of the figures in Ingres’ painting.
Although here the Black figure is engaged in the action of the scene, she is, once again in the subordinate role of a servant. She is doing her job, attending to the white woman who is almost unaware of her presence – or perhaps disinterested in it. This is the case for both Manet’s and Vallotton’s paintings – the Black woman is either standing, as in the former, or sitting upright, as in the latter, while the white woman is reclining. The Black woman is active, while the white woman is passive.
‘The ambiguity of each of the figures’ roles leaves the relationship between the two women open to interpretation.’
For the first time in this sequence of works, the Black sitter is closer to the viewer than the white sitter in Vallotton’s painting. The work makes clear references to both ‘Odalisque à l’Esclave’ and ‘Olympia’, but the status of the Black figure within the painting has changed.
On the right side of ‘La Blanche et La Noire’ is the figure who we see reproduced in Brice’s ‘Untitled’, sitting on a bed with her arms crossed and leaning forward in curiosity. She is gazing at the white nude female figure lying asleep on the bed, in a way that makes the viewer of the painting aware that they, like her, are in a voyeuristic position. The Black figure in this painting is not necessarily an attendant or a servant but she is, once again, an active figure in contrast to the recurring figure of a white woman reclining.
Yes, the Black woman is sitting as opposed to standing, as in the two previously discussed paintings, but she is still the more actively engaged of the two. The white woman has her eyes shut, seemingly asleep, while the Black woman observes. Her being a servant is not suggested by anything other than her race, unlike the clear servant status of the Black figures in Ingres’ and Manet’s paintings where they appear in the background.
Rather than attending to the white female figure, the Black woman here appears nonchalant in blue and orange smoking a cigarette. Her gaze on the nude white female figure, and their contrasting poses suggest, however, that the Black woman does not have the same luxury of lounging as her white counterpart. The ambiguity of each of the figures’ roles leaves the relationship between the two women open to interpretation.
‘Brice’s painting, with its explicit references to the three canonised paintings, challenges the genre of the reclining nude and subverts the expected subordinate position of Black figures…’
In Brice’s work, on display at Charleston’s current exhibition, the two figures from Vallotton’s painting have been rearranged. Her use of a blue palette has somewhat reduced the emphasis on the race of the Black figure, which is so stark in the previous three works – the title of Vallotton’s painting translates literally from the French feminine to ‘The White and the Black’.
In ‘Untitled’, the Black woman and the white woman have switched positions in the picture plane from Ingres and Manet’s paintings, with the nude white woman reclining in the background as a secondary, faintly outlined figure and the Black woman in the foreground as the protagonist, with her profile emphasised by a bold layer of Brice’s signature blue paint.
Brice’s painting, with its explicit references to the three canonised paintings, challenges the genre of the reclining nude and subverts the expected subordinate position of Black figures as observed in Academic European painting of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the sequence observed here – from Ingres’ ‘Odalisque à l’Esclave’ to Brice’s ‘Untitled’, and from 1839–2020 – the Black woman becomes progressively closer to the viewer, going from tertiary figure to primary figure. This movement, which culminates in Brice’s sketch, encourages a consideration of the (rarely highlighted) evolving role of Black sitters in painting, and in academic narratives of art history.
Our ‘Lisa Brice‘ exhibition is open until 30 August 2021.