Confronting Slavery in the Museum, from New York to Nantes

By Meredith Martin

In recent years, museums around the world have devoted exhibitions to the topic of slavery while also examining how empire, slavery, and colonialism have shaped their institutions and collections. This essay focuses on three exhibitions that have opened in the past two years—in New York City, Amsterdam, and Nantes—in order to reflect on their innovative strategies of collaboration and public engagement, online and digital technologies, and new modes of display. My goal is not to be comprehensive, as many scholars have analyzed this topic, but rather to reflect on the current conversation and its possible future directions.[1] Nor do I wish to engage deeply with the controversies these museum practices have generated in the U.S. and in Europe. However, as an art historian who writes about representations of slavery in French art, I will offer some thoughts about how the presence (or absence) of slavery in museums has played out in the French context.[2]

In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City acquired a white marble bust of an enslaved Black woman by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). The unidentified sitter wears a defiant expression while straining against a rope that binds her exposed breasts and truncated arms (Fig. 1). Her twisting torso sits atop a pedestal inscribed with the words “Pourquoi Naître Esclave!” (“Why Born Enslaved!”), a phrase used to rename the work since many find its original title, La Négresse, racially offensive. The phrase’s exclamation, coupled with the sitter’s dynamic posture, conveys a sense of emphatic demand, an effect that may have led to the misconception—perpetuated by the Christie’s auction catalogue essay that advertised the bust prior to its 2018 sale—that Carpeaux was “an ardent opponent of slavery.” And yet, as curators Elyse Nelson and Wendy S. Walters argue in Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast, on view at the Met from March 2022 to March 2023, the artist was nothing of the sort. Rather, he made this sculpture—a version of which was shown at the Paris Salon of 1869, and thereafter replicated and sold in different media, sizes, and price points—to capitalize on the popularity of antislavery imagery at the end of the Second Empire (1852-1870), a few years after slavery had been outlawed in the United States and more than two decades after it had been abolished for the second time in France.     

Fig. 1. Installation view of Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen, with the permission of The Met

More than just a revisionist account of Carpeaux’s bust, Fictions of Emancipation uses the sculpture as a fulcrum for exploring the tensions and paradoxes of abolitionist art, much of which promotes freedom while at the same time indulging in colonial fantasies about the abjection and possession of Black bodies. Carpeaux’s sculpture is a case in point, a work that at once celebrates emancipation and insists on its subject’s sexualized captivity. Other antislavery artworks on view in the exhibition, like Josiah Wedgwood’s 1787 medallion Am I Not a Man and A Brother?, seem to imply that Black liberation is dependent on white beneficence.[3] The curators display several such objects alongside examples of ethnographic “types,” among them busts of African men and women by the French sculptor Charles Cordier (1827-1905), to show how they shaped ideas of race and racial inequality that persist today. They also explore how racial stereotypes are resisted in sculptures like Edmonia Lewis’s Forever Free, carved in 1867 by an American woman artist of Black and Anishanaabe descent, and Kara Walker’s Negress (2017). Walker’s piece, placed on the floor in a corner of the exhibition, constitutes a powerful contemporary response to the historical artworks on view, one that reclaims the racial slur of Carpeaux’s original title but reimagines the bust as a degraded, hollowed-out ghost—a reminder of how the past, and the legacies of slavery in particular, haunts the living (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Installation view of Kara Walker, Négresse (2017) from Fictions of Emancipation. Photo: Meredith Martin

The exhibition’s design suggests how Carpeaux’s marble bust, along with another version of the sculpture in terracotta owned by the Met, inspired its expansive conversation about race, representation, and display. The two busts are placed on plinths in the center of the gallery and gaze in different directions, creating a centrifugal force that radiates outward to the other objects in the exhibition, the rest of the museum, and the city beyond (Fig. 1). This ripple effect likewise characterizes the curatorial and institutional decisions made during the planning of the show. When the Met first acquired Carpeaux’s marble bust in 2019, it was already intended to be part of a museum-wide initiative to expand the narratives told in the galleries, and Nelson, a newly hired assistant curator in the department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts,  began organizing an exhibition focused on the sculpture. Walters, a poet, essayist, and professor of non-fiction writing at Columbia University, was invited to write a poem about Carpeaux’s bust for a December 2019 episode of the online series MetCollects, in which she speculates about the sitter’s humanity and inner life, something the work itself denies. 

The project, however, took on a new urgency after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and around the globe. The Met’s initial response to these events was to wonder whether the exhibition should happen at all, given the fact that several of its artworks not only aestheticize but arguably spectacularize Black pain and suffering. And yet, rather than cancel the show and hide Carpeaux’s bust from view, the organizers decided to move forward and engage a wider range of voices from outside the museum and the field of art history. Walters became a co-curator, and several contemporary artists, along with the legal scholar Farah Peterson; Lisa Farrington, the former dean of visual arts at Howard University (which lent the Edmonia Lewis sculpture to the exhibition); and other professionals from outside the Met were invited to contribute. Several of them wrote wall labels installed throughout the exhibition that respond to such broad questions as “What is Representation?,” “What is Abolition?,” and “Who Narrates History?” Visitors were likewise invited to join the conversation and write their responses to these questions on comment cards made available in an area adjacent to the show; these cards were then left on shelves for visitors to read.

In design and function, Fictions of Emancipation brings to mind the musical form of “call and response,” in which an initial, often solo, musical phrase—in this case, Carpeaux’s bust, or the exhibition itself—is “answered” by a different, often ensemble, phrase. Pervasive in African musical traditions, and brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, the technique of call-and-response encourages democratic participation and is by definition open-ended in its outcome. The Met exhibition feels that way too, with responses that continue to shift and grow. Within the museum itself, the show, which is installed in a threshold space that links to different stairwells, passages, and galleries within the building, seems to establish a dialogue with new temporary exhibitions like Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina, which opened in a gallery near the Carpeaux show this past September. Fictions of Emancipation also seems to be in conversation with new didactic interventions to the galleries devoted to the Met’s permanent collection of European paintings. One example is a plaque on “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century Europe” installed in front of Nicolas de Largillière’s Portrait of a Woman and an Enslaved Servant (1696)—a work that, like Carpeaux’s bust, has recently been retitled.

There are certainly people, curators and trustees among them, who worry that such responses are too didactic, and that by drawing attention to ugly historical topics like slavery, museums will alienate visitors and undercut their “true” mission of instilling an appreciation of artistic beauty. I, myself, have heard (off-the-record) responses from colleagues who felt the Carpeaux wall labels were too heavy-handed—with too much emphasis on the painful truths of history, and not enough on aesthetic pleasure—though they acknowledged this tone was appropriate for the historical and political moment in which the show was created. Most critics as well as visitors to the exhibition, however, seem to have been undeterred by such didacticism—if anything, they welcomed it. When prompted to give their response to the show, several members of the public said they appreciated being encouraged to think critically about art, rather than simply being expected to admire it.[4] They had no problem accepting that an artwork could be beautiful and ugly at the same time; learning about an object’s problematic history made it more complex but also more meaningful and did not seem to negate an appreciation for artistic skill or other qualities. The response might serve as a rejoinder to detractors who would claim that such a “decolonial” approach is destroying a love of art.

These are, of course, questions that have come to the forefront of museum planning in recent years, as more institutions grapple with their own difficult histories and try to create more equitable, inclusive practices for the future. In July 2020, the Met issued a pledge of thirteen commitments to anti-racism, diversity, and a stronger community, and many museums in the U.S. and Europe have published similar statements in the past two years. In addition, several institutions have forged national and international networks devoted to promoting diversity as well as engaging with histories and legacies of slavery; among these are Musea Bekennen Kleur (Museums See Color), a network of Dutch museums that includes the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt House, and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht; the UK-based Transatlantic Slavery and Legacies in Museum Forum led by National Museums Liverpool; and the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project, a collaboration between University College London, the National Gallery of Art in London, and other UK organizations. Several Swiss institutions have also begun examining the country’s economic, commercial, and artistic ties to slavery and colonialism, and a spate of recent museum shows in Switzerland have explored these connections, among them Exotic? Switzerland Looking Outward in the Age of Enlightenment, an exhibition at the Palais de Rumine in Lausanne from 2020-21, and Movements, a new permanent installation at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Neuchâtel. In 2022, the Museo delle Culture (MUDEC) in Milan also hosted one of Italy’s first-ever exhibitions on slavery and the depiction of men and women of African descent, entitled The Voice of the Shadows: African Presences in Northern Italian Art (XVI-XIX Century).

In June 2021, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened Slavernij, the first major exhibition devoted to slavery during the Dutch colonial period as well as to the integral role slavery played in the Netherlands. Organized by the Rijksmuseum’s History department and led by a curatorial team of four women—Valika Smeulders, Eveline Sint Nicolaas, Maria Holtrop, and Stephanie Archangel—it took a biographical approach in highlighting “ten true stories” of real-life men and women involved in the Dutch slave trade, including enslaved individuals who resisted their captivity and oppression. The installation featured a wide range of objects such as paintings, prints, maps, letters and other archival documents, tools used on Dutch colonial plantations, and weapons for inflicting punishment. The curators solicited participation from many artists, scholars, and members of the public and created extensive virtual and in-person programming around the event, including a website with ten short films about the individuals who were the show’s focus.

Slavernij received a lot of international attention and is continuing to have a broad impact or “ripple effect” in the Netherlands and beyond. In addition to serving as a model for how to confront the topic of slavery in a temporary exhibition, it has inspired a larger international conversation about how this topic might be integrated into the display of a museum’s permanent collection. For its part, the Rijksmuseum has decided to adopt a provisional approach and create supplemental wall labels for 77 of the artworks in its permanent collection that confront the issue of slavery. For now, these supplemental labels, which are printed in white and stand out against the museum’s dark grey or light grey walls, hang above or alongside an artwork’s existing label, sometimes expanding on information already present in that label, other times establishing a tension with it. 

For example, while the existing label for Frans Post’s monumental painting Landscape in Brazil (1652) notes the Dutch West India Company’s colonization of Brazil in 1630 and establishment of sugar plantations that relied on enslaved African labor (like the one depicted in Post’s painting), the supplemental label emphasizes the painting’s selective idealization of the landscape and its masking of the harsh realities and violence involved in sugar production. Elsewhere, however, an artwork’s connection to slavery is less obvious, and in those cases the supplemental label elucidates an association that visitors might not be able to see. Whereas the existing label for Willem Claesz Heda’s Still Life with a Gilt Cup (1635), for instance, describes the painting’s beautiful interplay of colors and objects—including a sumptuous damask cloth, oysters on a pewter plate, and a gleaming silver saltcellar—the supplemental label recounts how the Dutch colonized the Caribbean island of Bonaire one year after the painting was completed, forcing the island’s Indigenous and enslaved African inhabitants to mine salt so that it could appear on elite tables like the one in Heda’s image. A similar juxtaposition characterizes the two labels for Pieter Jansz Saenredam’s The Nave and Choir of the Mariakerk in Utrecht (1641) (Fig. 3). Whereas the existing label highlights the artist’s exquisite attention to detail in his rendering of the church interior, the supplemental label explains how members of the Dutch Reformed Church used stories from the Bible to legitimate the slave trade as it began to enrich the Netherlands.

Fig. 3.  Installation view of Slavernij, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo: Rijksmuseum

This intervention in the Rijksmuseum’s permanent galleries could be viewed as more radical than the Slavernij exhibition, both because the labels reveal connections to slavery that are unexpected for a general audience, and because they bring a new context to some of the museum’s most beloved artworks, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642). The supplemental wall labels show how art was complicit in the slave trade, either by hiding and aestheticizing the horrors of slavery, or by promoting and embodying an elite lifestyle of luxury consumption made possible by enslaved labor, the profits it generated, and the commodities (such as salt, sugar, and silver) it produced. As Simon Gikandi has shown in his book Slavery and the Culture of Taste, slavery and the “civilized” world of artistic production and consumption were intrinsically linked; slavery was not a supplemental aspect of early modern European society but the very foundation on which elite culture and its forms of artistic expression were built. The challenge for the Rijksmuseum and for other museums moving forward is how to tell this story in a way that doesn’t feel provisional or secondary.

The question of where and how to represent slavery in museums and other cultural sites has been a contested issue in France, where notions of universalism dating to the Enlightenment era have in some instances discouraged conversations about race, slavery, and the colonial past. While the Taubira Law of 2001 famously declared slavery and the slave trade to be a “crime against humanity,” many public, government-supported representations of slavery have tended to focus on abolition in ways that have downplayed the depravity of slavery or have exemplified the paradoxes of abolitionist imagery noted above.[5] One of the most notorious of these depictions, Hervé di Rosa’s mural commemorating the first (1794) abolition of slavery created for France’s National Assembly in 1991, has been condemned as dehumanizing and racist, and in 2019, protestors circulated a petition demanding its removal. Yet, the mural still stands. This possibly reflects a national stance against censorship or “cancel culture” that is also present in President Emmanuel Macron’s avowal not to remove any artworks or monuments connected to France’s colonial past, but rather to “look lucidly together at all our history, all our memory, our relationship with Africa in particular, in order to build a present and a possible future.”

This stance would seem to encourage a broad, critical exploration of the histories and depictions of slavery in French museums, and in many ways it has. In 2019, the Musée d’Orsay staged The Black Model, which expanded on a version of the same exhibition curated by Denise Murrell and held at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in New York City in 2018-19.[6] Although it was not a show about slavery per se, The Black Model focused on sitters and models of African descent, many of whom were brought to France as a result of the slave trade or were forced to face its persistent dehumanizing effects. As a way to restore a sense of humanity and subjectivity to some of the models on view, the titles of the artworks were changed if the sitter’s identity was known. For example, a famous image from 1800 by Marie Guillemine Benoist, previously known as Portrait d’une Négresse, was renamed Portrait de Madeleine in reference to the sitter, a formerly enslaved Black woman brought to France by relatives of the artist who had resided in the French colony of Guadeloupe.[7]

A similarly political act of naming was adopted for The Abyss: Nantes’s Role in the Slave Trade and Colonial Slavery 1707-1830, which opened at the Musée d’histoire de Nantes in October 2021. Curated by Krystel Gualdé, the museum’s scientific director, the exhibition, according to a poster placed outside the building’s entrance, promised to “reveal the invisible (but ever-present) traces of the men and woman that were victims of the colonial system,” and to “reveal the complex reality of a city that was so deeply involved in the slave trade.” That promise was made powerfully evident throughout the show, which began with an animated digital map documenting the thousands of slave ships and millions of enslaved persons who were brought to the Americas in the early modern period. Each ship, color-coded by the European country with which it was associated, appeared as a tiny dot advancing rapidly across Atlantic during the year it was launched. For most of the eighteenth century, blue dots representing French ships were prominently visible, and they appeared especially thick in the two decades before the French Revolution. Nantes, as the exhibition’s labels explained, was the departure point for 43% of all eighteenth-century French slave trading campaigns, and in 1777, there were 700 persons of color in Nantes, 280 of whom were “vivant en esclavage.” (In fact, the labels pointedly avoided using the reductive term “esclave,” opting for “[une personne] vivant en esclavage” instead.[8]

The Abyss demolished the myth—based on an early modern French legal dictum—that slavery existed only in the colonies, and all enslaved persons who set foot on metropolitan French soil were set free.[9] While acknowledging that few identifiable images of these enslaved individuals exist, the exhibition nonetheless attempted to “portray” them by creating wall plaques with their names and biographies installed next to painted portraits of elite white men and women with unidentified attendants (Fig. 4). Thousands more names of victims of France’s transatlantic slave trade were projected digitally onto the walls and floor, and digital technology was also used to “animate” some of the portraits on view and draw attention to the enslaved attendants in them who have been historically overlooked. These portraits were shown alongside luxury commodities—textiles, ceramics, silver vessels—tied to the slave trade. In a section entitled “Nantes in the time of Les Indes Galantes, the first slave port in France,” the hauntingly beautiful “Air des esclaves africains” from Jean-Baptiste Rameau’s 1735 opéra-ballet played on a loop, underscoring the links between slavery and the “culture of taste” and the ways that slavery was evoked, aestheticized, and naturalized through art.

Fig. 4. Installation view of The Abyss: Nantes’s Role in the Slave Trade and Colonial Slavery 1707-1830. Château des ducs de Bretagne – Nantes. © David Gallard/LVAN 

The most disturbing part of the exhibition again relied on digital projection to simulate the hold of an eighteenth-century slave ship, where captured Africans were forced to endure the transatlantic crossing amid unspeakable conditions. The installation recalled those of other exhibits devoted to slavery that attempt to make visitors not just see but feel the horrors of the Middle Passage, such those at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Although it raised the question of whether such installations transform suffering into spectacle, in my view it didn’t cross that line. For the digital projection, the exhibition designers relied on a rare surviving drawing, also on view, of a Nantes slave ship known as the Marie Séraphique from the museum’s collection (Fig. 5). The drawing was made (probably on board) by one of the ship’s officers, Jean-René L’Hermitte, around 1769, the same year the Marie Séraphique set sail from Nantes to Loango in West Africa and then to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) with more than 300 Africans on board. Also exhibited was another drawing of the Marie Séraphique off the coast of Saint-Domingue’s affluent city of Cap Français, the so-called “Paris of the Antilles.” It depicts Africans being sold into slavery on the ship’s top deck, while nearby group of well-dressed naval officers—including, perhaps, L’Hermitte himself—toast their profits and enjoy a feast, seemingly oblivious to the naked bodies of Black captives who surround them. 

Fig. 5. Installation view of The Abyss. © David Gallard/LVAN 

The Abyss, as well as the permanent installations devoted to slavery at the Musée d’histoire, is related to a larger city-wide initiative to shine a light on Nantes’ historic role in the transatlantic slave trade. This campaign dates back at least a decade, to the 2012 creation of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, but it is also apparent in contemporary plaques installed throughout the city that document areas where slaving merchants lived and worked or that describe the historic stone masks (some bearing African features) that ornament several buildings. When I visited Nantes in February 2022, I was struck by how prevalent these references to slavery were, which made it all the more surprising that the topic was entirely absent from the city’s other major exhibition on view at the Musée d’arts. Organized by the museum’s director, Sophie Lévy, and entitled À La Mode! The Art of Appearance in the 18th Century, it featured many of the same kinds of portraits of elite white men and women wearing fashionable textiles and surrounded by luxury commodities as The Abyss exhibition, including a portrait of Madame Crozat, wife of one of the wealthiest financiers in eighteenth-century France, whose fortunes derived from the slave trade and who owned the French colony of Louisiana from 1712 to 1717. One could perhaps argue that this context was tangential to Madame Crozat’s portrait, but it was not tangential to many objects on view, including a “blackface” Harlequin mask, textiles dyed with indigo and cochineal (both produced with enslaved labor), and an entire section of garments made of white cotton that was imported to France from India but also, increasingly in the eighteenth century, from slaveholding colonies in the Americas.[10] The wide gulf between these two exhibitions, located just a short walk from each other, underscored that while the subject of slavery is become increasingly visible in parts of France’s museum world and public sphere, it is less visible in others.

This tension between visibility and invisibility is also present in other areas of the country, as it is in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe. Although there are permanent installations devoted to the history of slavery in the cities of Bordeaux and La Rochelle (at the Musée d’Aquitaine and the Musée du nouveau monde, respectively), no such installation currently exists in Paris, and a planned memorial to the victims of slavery that was supposed to be erected in the Tuileries Gardens has been stalled for years. In June 2021, the Centre des monuments nationaux opened the Hôtel de la Marine, a lavish, 132 million euro museum situated in the Place de la Concorde in the former headquarters of France’s Navy Ministry, responsible for overseeing the navy as well as French ports, colonies, and foreign commerce. The project, housed in the same building as the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, would seem to present an ideal opportunity to confront the histories of slavery in France, but the museum is mostly silent on the subject, notably in a period room devoted to the Enlightenment “culture of taste” that is hung with eighteenth-century tapestries portraying enslaved Africans and, in the background, a sugar plantation derived from paintings by Frans Post. Although it has been replaced, the room’s mantelpiece was originally decorated with a musical automaton clock representing the bust of a Black woman that was a popular object at Marie-Antoinette’s court; it told the time by having courtiers tug the woman’s earrings, which made her eyes roll to reveal the hour and minutes. This past October, a version of the clock was sold at Sotheby’s in Paris as part of the celebrated Hôtel Lambert collection and proved once again to be popular, selling for twice its high estimate of 500,000 euros. At the Sotheby’s viewing, the clock was given a starring role at the center of the main room and was described in glowing terms in the catalogue, but time will tell whether it may be mobilized to tell a different story in another collection or exhibition (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Installation view of the “Musical and Automaton Mantel Clock” sold at Sotheby’s Paris in October 2022. Photo: Meredith Martin

There are signs that the topics of slavery and colonialism are becoming more prominent in Paris, for example at the Musée du Quai Branly, where the exhibition Black Indians from New Orleans opened in October 2022. Although the advertisements made it appear as though the exhibition was mainly a celebration of the elaborate costumes worn by African American participants in Mardi Gras, it was actually a serious, probing examination of the histories and legacies of slavery among Black and Indigenous inhabitants of French colonial Louisiana. At the Musée du Luxembourg, an exhibition that opened in September 2022 entitled Mirror of the World showcased exquisite art objects from the Dresden cabinet of curiosities but also did not shy away from critically considering their Eurocentric world view and the ties to slavery they embody. Lastly, across town at the Musée Nissim de Camondo—perhaps an unlikely venue for confronting the topic of slavery—a plaque has recently been added to a bronze bust in the collection after visitors protested its lack of contextualization (Fig. 7).[11] Although the pedestal is inscribed with text commemorating the 1794 abolition of slavery in France, the bust relates to a fountain sculpture created in the early 1780s by Jean-Antoine Houdon that was acquired by the duc de Chartres, a cousin of Louis XVI, and installed in the Parc Monceau. The fountain represented the white marble figure of a nude woman being bathed by a Black attendant cast in lead, who could have been modeled after the many enslaved or exploited African servants—several of them young children trafficked from Sénegal—then living in the Parisian households of the nobility.[12] The museum’s plaque notes that the sculpture, formerly known by the “shocking and unacceptable” title Buste de Négresse, has been renamed Buste de femme noir

Fig. 7. Installation view of the plaque added to Buste de femme noir at the Musée de Nissim Camondo. Photo: Meredith Martin

In closing, one can’t help but wonder what the response to this call to confront slavery will be from the Louvre, Paris’s central art museum both literary and figuratively. Although the Louvre has hosted temporary events around the topics of slavery and colonialism, notably the series of guided tours entitled “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity” organized by Françoise Vergès in 2012, there is currently no permanent installation devoted to these topics, and at least one recent exhibition missed an opportunity to engage more broadly with them.[13] However, in May 2021, Macron appointed the Louvre’s first-ever female president and director, Laurence Des Cars, the former director of the Musée d’Orsay who oversaw The Black Model. Des Cars’s recent choice of Pierre Singaravélou, a prominent historian of empire and colonialism, to give the 2022 Chaire du Louvre lectures suggests she intends to engage with these and other topics on a more structural, enduring basis. Singaravélou’s pledge to revivify the “Fantômes du Louvre” and “repopulate the museum” is reminiscent of Vergès’s earlier commitment to “look for the ghosts of slaves in the Louvre.” Will resurrecting the “ghosts” of France’s colonial past become part of the museum’s evolving mission?  

Meredith Martin is the author of Dairy Queens: The Politics of Pastoral Architecture from Catherine de’ Medici to Marie-Antoinette (Harvard University Press, 2011), and co-author of two books: Meltdown: Picturing the World’s First Bubble Economy (Harvey Miller, 2020), which accompanies an exhibition she co-curated for The New York Public Library, and (with Gillian Weiss) The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Gallery Slavery in Louis XIV’s France (Getty Publications, 2022). In addition, she is a founding editor of Journal18 and the co-creator and producer of the Ballet des Porcelaines.

Title Image: Installation view of the “Musical and Automaton Mantel Clock” sold at Sotheby’s Paris in October 2022. Photo: Meredith Martin.


[1] See, for example, Ana Lucia Araujo, Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past (London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021); Benaouda Lebdaï, Delphine Letort, and Éliane Elmaleh, eds., Rémanences de l’esclavage dans les arts, les littératures et les musées (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2022); and Laurajane Smith, Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums: Ambiguous Engagements (New York: Routledge, 2011). It is interesting to note that all three of the exhibitions I discuss in this essay were curated by women.

[2] Meredith Martin and Gillian Weiss, The Sun King at Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2022), translated into French as Le Roi-Soleil en mer. Art maritime et galériens dans la France de Louis XIV, trans. Élise Trogrlic (Paris: Les Éditions de l’EHESS, 2022).

[3] Elyse Nelson and Wendy S. Walters, eds., Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved! Reconsidered (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022).

[4] This information comes a conversation I had with Elyse Nelson in November 2022.

[5] Sébastien Gölkalp, director of the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration in Paris, made this point in a panel devoted to representations of slavery in French museums at the October 2022 Rendez-vous de l’histoire conference in Blois. Describing the fresco decoration of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, the building constructed for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition that now houses his museum, Gölkalp noted its “totally biased” reference to slavery in the form of a “white father freeing the slaves. In the end, the only message that appears in this palace shows the emancipatory side of French colonization, while completely ignoring the fact that France was also a slave-owning country.”

[6] The Black Model subsequently traveled to the ACTe Memorial in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, and Murrell is now a curator-at-large at the Met: two facts that underscore the global dimensions of some of these exhibitions and remind us that they should not be seen solely as products of the countries in which they were held. 

[7] Le modèle noir. De Géricault à Matisse (Paris: Musée d’Orsay: Flammarion, 2019); see the essay “Renommer l’Oeuvre” by Anne Higonnet (26-30), as well as the catalogue entry on “Madeleine” by Anne Lafont (58-59).

[8] To my mind, this recalls the shift from “slave” to “enslaved person” in the English language. See Katy Waldman, “Slave or Enslaved Person?,” Slate, May 19, 2015.

[9] Sue Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[10] On connections between Harlequin, slavery, and racism, see Robert Hornback, Racism and Early Blackface Comic Traditions: From the Old World to the New (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Scott M. Sanders, “Code Noir in Marivaux’s Theatre,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 32, no. 2 (Winter 2019-20), 271-96; and Aaron Wile, “Blackface in Watteau’s Italian Comedians?,” The National Gallery of Art, August 5, 2021.

[11] The Nissim Camondo’s former director, Olivier Gabet, discussed these protests at an event I attended at the Villa Albertine in New York City in February 2022.

[12] Anne Lafont, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’oeil des Lumières (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2019); 137-146; and Michèle Bocquillon, “Black Children as Pets in Eighteenth-Century European Courts,” in Childhood and Pethood in Literature and Culture: New Perspectives in Childhood Studies and Animal Studies, ed. Anna Feuerstein and Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo (London: Routledge), 2019), chap. 13.   

[13] This was an exhibition entitled From Afar: Travelling Materials and Objects, which was installed in the Louvre’s Petite Galerie from September 2021 until July 2022 and featured many of the same kinds of art objects as the Mirror of the World show. Although the slave trade was mentioned in one of the wall labels (which referred to a pair of eighteenth-century silver sugar casters in the form of slaves), very little was said overall about connections to slavery or colonialism, notably in a section devoted to objects made of African ivory. See also Françoise Vergès, “The Slave at the Louvre: An Invisible Humanity”, Nka 38-39 (2016), 8-13.

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