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
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.
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.
2. What really motivated these artists behind these paintings were really the political conditions that
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
European powers over Africans and Indians in the 16 to 19 century. The slavery of African
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
in, even today in the 21 century.