The Slave at the Louvre

Françoise Vergès

Slavery here is a ghost, both the past and a living presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent that ghost, something that is and yet is not”, wrote the Haitian postcolonial thinker Michel-Ralph Trouillot.1 What can be said for the pictorial representation of this spectre? How did French artists from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries represent the slave? In particular, how were they represented between the trade’s beginnings up to the definitive abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848? These questions were already at the heart of the proposition made by the Committee for the Memory of Slavery (of which I am a member) in 20042 to the museums of France: to make an inventory of the figure of the slave in painting and decorative arts. This inventory has yet to be finalized but the question of the representation of the figure of the slave has remained, for me, a recurrent one.

At a meeting with Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2012 Triennial exhibition3 in Paris, I suggested organizing a programme of guided tours in the Louvre museum entitled, “The Slave at the Louvre”. The aim was to revisit the collections in the Louvre in search of the figure of the slave. The main focus of the visits was to review the collections of the Louvre, a museum opened in 1793 by the Revolution, and whose collections end at 1848 (with later works having been transferred to the Musée d’Orsay). The germinal work by Fred Wilson entitled Mining the Museum (1992), in which he revisited the Baltimore Historical Society’s collection in light of the history of slavery in that city was an important reference. The Louvre agreed to and actively supported the program. 

Filling in an absence or imposing the presence of the slave was not my intention, even though a great part of the riches of Europe and America were built upon its work; riches that have even been partly displayed in the Louvre. The goal was not to seek this kind of reparation but rather to come to an understanding of the necessary absence of this figure, or to identify why the figure could be expressed in a distorted way. It was less about pointing out that something was missing than it was about examining what had permitted a lack or a marginalisation of such a central figure in the emergence of European modernity.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d’une négresse, 1800, Paris, Musée du Louvre, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot’s Portrait d’une négresse was commented on by Shuck One, artist.

The role of slavery in human history and of colonial slavery in the making of the modern world, and its recurrence despite technological and humanitarian progress should already concern us. The figure of the slave remains so deeply evocative that it is often invoked to describe any situation in which the dignity and the integrity of a person are violated. All this draws out a cartography of an economic, cultural and socially predatory system.

Critical and analytical work on the representation of the slave during the French colonial period has yet to be done. Nothing yet in France measures up to Marcus Wood’s innovative study, who in 2000 opened up a critical field with Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865, and then took it further in Slavery, Empathy and Pornography (2003), and The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representations of Slavery (2010). For Wood, the most pertinent artistic representation of the slave and of slavery is that which explores the catastrophe without closing its history, and which reminds us of the difficulty or impossibility of seeing what the living experience of the slave truly is. For him, the paintings by Turner have come the closest to this goal. Blind Memory is not a “blind” memory, but a memory “blinded” by the light projected by slavery on the society that practices it, by its pornography, its violence, and its will and capacity to mask such violence.

In France, the shift between analysis of representations of the “Black Man” and the “Slave” tends to repeat what colonial slavery has constructed: an equivalence between the two figures—yet two figures between which I believe it is important to mark a distinction. When did the slave become “black”? When did freedom become “white” and servitude “black”? Otherwise, this absence of analysis allows, without any critical distance, the endless reproduction of paintings such as François Auguste Biard’s Abolition of Slavery, 27 April 1848. The sentimentality and its prefiguration of the civilizing mission do not appear to cause any problems even among postcolonial critics, for whom they have become iconic. Yet, the painting transforms abolition into a gift; it masks the bitterness of the slaves’s struggles, and the difficult and long battle that the abolitionists underwent. It shows a “white” man carrying a French flag, bringing freedom to the black slaves. A black woman on her knees kisses the feet of two white women, and two black men embrace each other, brandishing their broken chains.

The entire iconography of the colonial doctrine of abolitionism is there, obliterating any radical dimension. Why, at the very moment of its accomplishment, was the slaves’s freedom so often represented by a “white” man or a “white” woman? What inspired the iconographic use of the image of the tied-up and kneeling slave during the abolitionist period—on both sides of the Atlantic? Why was freedom always shown as having been a gift given to the “Blacks” by the “Whites”?

Frans Post, Le Char à boeufs, paysage brésilien, 1650, Paris, Musée du Louvre, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / René-Gabriel Ojéda. Post’s painting was commented on by Carpanin Marimoutou, professor of literature and poet.

Sought in the aforementioned visits was not literally the figure of the slave. One could thus stop in front of the painting, Six Shells on a Shelf4 to signal the presence of a cowrie shell, which was emblematic of the slave trade on the African coasts where it was used as currency for exchange (millions of cowries were transported from the Indian Ocean across the continent to West Africa). Indeed, looking at paintings of coffee cups, of tables, of teapots, and sugar bowls would likely achieve similar ends. The arts of living and of household consumption were profoundly affected by the arrival of sugar, coffee, tobacco, and chocolate in Europe in the eighteenth century. Though their conditions of production had to remain invisible, the figure of the “Negro” was prevalent in the decorative arts (visible on crockery, snuffboxes, tables, vases, and the like).

Colonial slavery lasted several centuries in the long history of French colonisation. The closed-chaptered approach (for which generalizing labels such as “Antiquity”, “The Middle Ages”, “Royalty”, “The Revolution”) masks a cartography that extended far beyond European borders and brought new tastes, new manners and non- European people to France. The narrow cartography of French history (the “Hexagon” or the binary couple “France / Colony”) heavily obscures the ways in which French identity, the Nation, the economy and the State were affected by colonization. The shifts, the echoes, the displacements, and the accidents of history are all marginalized therein.

Colonial slavery was a matrix for experimenting disciplinary and punitive techniques, states of exception, laws that were not those of mainland France, and the principle of universality, all of which led to the construction of anti-Black racism. The figure of the slave haunts the figure of the free and the citizen. Servitude and revolt, the denial of equality and its affirmation, are brought together there. The history of modern colonisation is thereby enlightened in a way that does not allow apologetic discourses. If colonial memories are often fragmented, however, their history is sometimes shared. Thus, must we be reminded that the colonisation of Algeria started eighteen years before the abolition of slavery, and that in 1848 the same government that later abolished slavery declared that Algeria was to be divided into the French departments?

Revisiting the complex artistic terrain of fragmented memories and crossed histories opens up new debates on representation, absence and presence.

Théodore Géricault, Le radeau de la Méduse, 1818, Paris, Musée du Louvre, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado. Le radeau de la Méduse was commented on by Isaac Julien, artist, and Maryse Condé, writer.

The Visits

The idea behind the guided visits was as follows: An inventory of the paintings or objects exhibited in the galleries and that made reference to slavery was sent to people that I had invited: Shuck One, the graphic artist; Leonora Miano, the writer; Carpanin Marimoutou, the poet and professor of literature; Isaac Julien, the visual artist; and Maryse Condé, the writer. Each person chose one of the inventoried objects. On the day of the tour, the visitors were welcomed by three people: Laurella Rinçon, a Conservateur du patrimoine; by one of my guests; and by me. I introduced the visit, first explaining the role and the place of colonial slavery in the culture and history of European society and the importance of its heritage for the contemporary world, Laurella Rinçon presented the artists, and the invited guest was given carte blanche to speak either about the work or the place of slavery in his or her own work, or about anything that the painting or the object brought up in his or her mind.5