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western art history semester 1 exam prep essay 2
western art history semester 1 exam prep essay 2
western art history semester 1 exam prep essay 2
western art history semester 1 exam prep essay 2
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western art history semester 1 exam prep essay 2

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  • 1. Introduction th Alongside the implementation of anti-slavery laws and the liberty of the black people in the 19 century, Western art history saw an influx of the depiction of Africans as main subjects in their paintings. [Subject Matter] Even though we see a gradual shift in such depictions [Opinion 1] and that these paintings were considered a reaction towards racist sentiments that plagued Europe and the early America [Opinion 2], such images often objectified the Africans [Opinion 3] and glorified the White painters and audiences [Opinion 4]. Such paintings were meant to stand up against the injustice towards humanity, yet it communicates such a bleak undertone for these people. [Opinion 5 / Conclusion] Description of the works One of the earliest painters that picked up such anti-racism sentiments was Marie Guillemine Benoist, a French Neo-classical female painter. In 1800, she completed A Portrait of a Black Woman, featuring an African slave-turned-servant lady. The subject is shown seated, half draped with a crisp white freshly laundered garment and an intricately wrapped headdress. The subject bares her right breast and stares out to the viewer in an enigmatic expression. Though there is no clear indication of where the sitter is placed, judging on the chair and luxurious cloth draped on the chair and on her, however, she is considered to be in a relatively well-to-do domestic environment. th Later on in the 19 century, in 1877, an American Impressionist painter, Winslow Homer, painted out his norm of landscapes and illustrated a scene of an African American family, dressed in bright and exuberant garments, carrying the little American flags, probably preparing to go for the Fourth of July Celebrations. He titled the painting Dressing for the Carnival. The figures seem to belong to the lower stratum of the social hierarchy and would be considered to be probably at the backyard of their house, situated in what looks like the outskirts of a rural town. Opinion 1 Prior to Benoistʼs A Portrait of a Black Woman, you could almost rarely find the existence of a black person in Western art, much less a painting done centered around a African, male or female. Portrait of a Black Woman and Dressing for the Carnival deviates from the norm and even the standard representations of black people in Western Art because they are usually just colourful additions to a portrait or a scene in which a white master or mistress is the intended primary focus, or simply used to exemplify the wealth of the white master or mistress with their financial ability to own a slave. Such instances can be seen in images such as Edouard Manetʼs infamous Manet, where a courtesan is depicted naked with her African servant, presenting her flowers given to her mistress by a client. Here in Portrait of a Black Woman and Dressing for the Carnival, we see that, visually, the main subjects and central focuses are the African people. There are no white people depicted in those images. In Black Woman, it is very obviously a portrait of an individual. It is not a study but a highly finished portrait at that. Benoist display her excellent Neo-classical execution in this portrait, almost reminiscent of her master Jacques-Louis David. And, in Dressing for the Carnival, the African American family is not portrayed in slavery or in servitude to a white master. They are a family unit of their own, and in American context, free citizens. It seemingly depicts merely a picturesque, sundrenched southern scene, with light striking forms of solidity. Opinion 2
  • 2. What really motivated these artists behind these paintings were really the political conditions that th went on in their respective countries in the 19 century. These artists wanted to make a positive statement, as a tribute or a highlight, for the racial and slave treatment of the Africans in their society and time. Slavery has existed as far back in human history as anyone can remembered, typically by th th European powers over Africans and Indians in the 16 to 19 century. The slavery of African th people reached a crescendo as a large part of 19 century saw an unprecedented period of colonial expansion and an increasingly imperialistic foreign policy, especially during the Scramble for Africa by the European powers in 1870s and 1880s. The main fuel for such imperialistic ideologies and administration was really the construction of these “imagined” national communities in Europe. Africans, then, were frequently brought to Europe to work in wealthy aristocratic families. th By the 18 century, the black people had evolved to an icon for deviant sexuality and purportedly with lascivious sexual appetite. This can be represented by the Hottentot Venus episode in 1810. This perception of the black people evolved for the people (whites) to think that the black was antithetical to the whites on the scale of humanity; the whites being superior and civilized. Such warped mentality proliferated from the academics to the civilians, and remains ingrained in so many people even till today. In the case of Benoist, the portrait was painted after the emancipation deree of 1749 in which slaves in the French colonies were liberated, and slavery was abolished. However, Napoleon Bonaparte later reinstated it in 1802. The portrait, painted in 1800, was then, a celebration for the African slaves and a tribute to the 1749 emancipation. Benoist, who produced mostly portrait and genre scenes, featuring moralized portrayal of women, children and family life – the expected of women artists in a patriarchal art society of the time, achieved prominence with this glorified black image. In her portrait, the black servant assumes a pose and situation traditional of white women. On top of that, nudity in Western art is often associated with female Greek goddess (like, Venus and Aphrodite), or with a personification (like, Eugene Delacroixʼs Liberty Leading The People) and Benoist had elevated this black lady beyond her humanly conditions to a divine status by portraying her semi-nude. th In America during the late 19 century, there was a serious issue of the African Americans who had been freed from slavery but not integrated into the democratic society. In that year, during the Fourth of July celebrations, several African Americans were harassed and killed. Before Winslow Homer could finish ʻDressing for the Carnivalʼ, this racial discriminatory situation had worsen when a Republican president had been elected in 1876 and no further effort was made to implement the Fifteenth amendment enfranchising all people irrespective of their ʻrace, colour or previous condition of servitudeʼ. This painting puts the grim situation under scrutiny by highlighting it among the American (white) society with great sensitivity. Upon closer observation of the painting, weʼll realize that beneath the cheerful, vibrant colours lies intense sorrow and hopelessness. We will notice that the man who is dressing up like a harlequin (a mute comical character in traditional European pantomime), and the two ladies helping are not the least joyful. The children in the scene are also strangely subdued despite the festivities. We would also notice the absence of the white people amidst the black family in the preparation of this supposed celebration of liberty and democracy in the land of the free. This, to me, symbolizes the lack of immersion into the society for this black family. The harlequin costume is very significant in my opinion in several ways. The feeling isolation from the community continues in the harlequin costume because the man is dressing up like a clown for the parade (symbolic of the white dominated society). The clownish, comical character would
  • 3. represent that he is a misfit of society, and one whom no one regards seriously. The harlequin is also a muted character. In the same way, the injustice done to African community in America has been promptly silenced with the policy implemented. Winslow Homerʼs painting, in turn, then gives this community a voice and place to speak up. Opinion 3 Despite the possibly good intentions of these artists, there is always an inherent problem during the portrayal of the Other. With the white being the artist, they assumed the role of the “controller”, with the power to dictate the portrayal of the other. Sometimes, in their inaccurate portrayal of the Other and over-aestheticising, they may objectify them. Just as in the case of the Portrait of a Black Woman, the black lady is rendered exotically with her intricately wrapped headdress and garments. The attire is not exactly reflective of the black ladyʼs current state as a slave-turned-servant in France. As she is wrapped up in an awkward white- man-dictated costume (in a way that is almost reflective of African slavery situation in Europe), the sitter looks out of the frame with a sense of melancholy and hopelessness, as if to appeal out to the viewer for help. The exposure of her right breast is a double-edged sword because, on one hand, it may have divinized her to a Greek goddess, yet on the other, it may also have pandered to male voyeurism even though it may have been Benoistʼs intention. In the process of glorifying and aestheticising the black lady, she may have also eroticized and objectified her, removing the black lady of her identity and her voice. In the view of making a statement for the slave situation in th 19 century France, the portrait may not have highlighted the social situation that she is in at all. On the other end of the spectrum, Winslow Homer, in his painting, may have more accurately depicted the African Americans in their difficult situation. It could be because he might have truly witnessed such a scene in Petersburg, Virginia at that time, and may have done little to alter what was presented to him. In addition to that, Winslow Homerʼs sensibility to social issues, realist attitudes and a sincere heart to create a spotlight for this political issue, helped him put together this moving portrait filled with the resilience and richness of the African American people. Opinion 4 Nevertheless, we are reminded that these two paintings are depiction of the Other, in the case where the white is the painter and the black people as the other. Both Marie Guillemine Benoist and Winslow Homer made their mark with their paintings of the Other – for Benoist, the painting of “the non-European as picturesquely ʻexoticʼ type” and for Homer, the African-American scenes. Their names has earn their place with the abolitionist and activists and synonymous with black peoples rights In these paintings, even though the white man is not present in the paintings, they are still implicitly there. Firstly, the white man is the painter who controls and manipulates the Other as subjects he desired. The paintings are ultimately for the white manʼs viewing pleasure; hence his is also the controlling gaze that brings the “Other” world into being. For Winslow Homer, his African American paintings spurred a surge in such genre paintings in the following decades as it appealed to the general society, even among the white people. Such images gave them the illusion that the American society was a stable social structure, and that the African Americans had a voice, an avenue of speech in this land of the free. As the white people look into the picture frame, through their sympathy, the black community then becomes objectified as an aesthetic and as a symbol, more than it would represent an individual with personality. As for Portrait of a Black Woman, the traditionally white woman posture and situation she assumes becomes an allegory of Benoistʼs own condition as a female in this patriarchal French
  • 4. society that she existed in. Similarly, the white men is not portrayed in the painting, however, the white artist is still implicitly present because the black woman here serves as the model for her. She has made use of the racialised Other to define and empower the colonizing Self. This portrait then becomes a record this white womanʼs construction, and her self-affirmation through the racialised Other. Opinion 5 / Conclusion Both Portrait of a Black Woman and Dressing for the Carnival are considered quintessential paintings for their voice against slavery and racism. However, as paintings by white painters, despite their purest intentions, the black people, nevertheless, were reduced objects, and in some cases, became aestheticised and eroticized. Just as the two paintings encapsulated a timeless sense of melancholy and hopelessness in their portrayal of the black people, they have, in a way, highlighted and prophesied this dire racist and slavish whirlwind that the black people are caught st in, even today in the 21 century.

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