Skip to main content

Racism In Art

ISSUE:  Spring 1991
The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume Four: From the American Revolution to World War I. By Hugh Honour. Harvard. Part I—Slaves and Liberators; Part II—Black Models and White Myths. $50.00 each.

Writing about art is an art in itself, which Hugh Honour’s The Image of the Black in Western Art ably demonstrates. Volume IV covers the period from the American Revolution to World War I. Part One, focusing on “Slaves and Liberators,” examines “images directly referring to slavery and its abolition in the Americas and Africa.” Part Two, focusing on “Black Models and White Myths,” illustrates “the ways in which artists saw and imagined blacks in other contexts.” Honour establishes early on that his selections demonstrate a difference between European and American definitions of a Black. In the U.S. “black” referred to anyone with African ancestry, whereas in Europe “distinctions were drawn between blacks, people of mixed blood, and whites, in ascending hierarchical order.”

These volumes contribute much to the general and long overdue interrogation of ideas of “otherness” going on in several fields of study. They compare favorably with Edward Said’s Orientalism, Valentine Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa, Werner Sollors’ The Invention of Ethnicity and Christopher Miller’s Black Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, to name only four. In this massive investigation Honour persuades that the images he selects “are no mere historical documents, but have additional and enduring relevance as the products of a white society whose opinions and acts have blighted and continue to blight the lives of millions of human beings. These images illustrate that artistic production both reflects and creates a culture’s structures and is thus “conditioned by [its] demands and . . .prohibitions.”

Image of the Black in Western Art is a compendium of Western history, metaphysics, anthropology, ethnography, and pseudoscience. Indeed, many of the images Honour selects show the imprint of racialist thinking threaded through these diverse discourses, illustrating the consubstantial relation between visual and verbal systems of representation and meaning. The images are accompanied by a rich and impressively researched discussion of Western thinking about “race.” In his discussion of representations of slavery in the art of the U.S., for example, Honour traces ideas about race to their origin in the Atlantic Slave trade when they were formulated “as a means of imposing [rank] and order on the diversity of humankind.” The very word negro came to be “used as a synonym for slave, and by far the most widely diffused images of blacks, from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth showed them as slaves.” These visual images, persistently stereotypic, were the equivalent of verbal cliches and were mindlessly repeated even after the abolition of slavery. Even abolitionist imagery itself participated ironically in perpetuating these stereotypes. For example, the well-intentioned abolitionist medallion that inscribed the famous question, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” came to “crystallize and enshrine the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority.” This image of the docile, supplicant slave on bended knee reassured a public all too aware of “the power of visual images to trouble the conscience.” Pictures of escaped slaves pursued by bloodhounds appeared far more frequently in Europe than in America. And while images of atrocities and abuses— beatings, slave auctions, for example—were recorded in literary representations of slavery, those disturbing subjects were “unacceptable to the art-buying public for the walls of their homes.” They wanted, instead, a rosewater side of slavery, reinforcing the observations of an 1859 review in The Crayon: “It is a mistake to suppose that artists are free to paint what pleases them best. The truth is that artists are compelled to meet the public by consulting its likes and dislikes.”

While images bolstering the “confidence in the order of the day” might be expected insofar as artistic content was concerned, those signs were equally evident in artistic technique during the period of slavery. Honour notes that in both the U.S. and in Europe, painters and sculptors “derived their techniques and stylistic traits from the common Western tradition of naturalistic representation.” But when it came to blacks, their images diverged from standard practice to show the persistence of cultural stereotypes as aids in the artistic process. Honour offers George Cruickshank’s illustration of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as one example of the effects of cultural conditioning on the mind of the artist. In his depiction of the novel’s final episode, Cruikshank’s slaves have “caricatured facial features and exaggerated gestures” and are shown “rejoicing as they are given their certificates of freedom by the calm young white master,” George.

Images of slaves kneeling in the face of their subjection or rejoicing in the face of their release were mindlessly repeated long after emancipation. In American monument sculpture, for example, the emancipation of slaves was represented as an “example of white philanthropy.” The black in Thomas Ball’s “Emancipation,” the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln, is a recuperation of the “respectfully abased” figure of the abolitionist emblem. Lincoln stands erect with one arm outstretched over the head of a nearly naked, kneeling slave—the “ideal slave.” The monument’s iconography prompted Frederick Douglass to describe it as “a white man’s monument”; and later black art historians, as “the visual equivalent of Uncle Tom.”

Even with its traditional iconography, Ball’s “Emancipation,” is one of few representations of blacks in sculpture, elevated or not. As Honour notes, “whereas painting was regarded as “Romantic art,”” sculpture, on both continents, was still “believed to be essentially “classical” and thus devoted mainly to realizing European ideals of moral nobility and physical beauty” from which blacks were excluded. Such classical ideals were indissociable from assumptions about intellectual qualities of the races. Blacks and other “racial types” connoted unintellectual, sensual, and instinctive qualities. There was therefore no place for [them] in “high” art.” Two busts by Charles Cordier— “Nègre de Tombouctou” (Timbuctoo in English) and “Vénus Africaine” (1851)—seemed important exceptions to the rule, but for the salient fact that they exploited the popular interest in theories of racial “types.” Honour’s discussion of Cordier captures in summary the volumes’ general aims and concerns. He notes that Cordier’s busts of Africans are “at the point of intersection . . .of mid-nineteenth century ideas about aesthetics, race, and colonization.” These busts held “fascination for anthropologists, ethnographers, anatomists, philosophers, and historians,” a fascination due in no small part to theories of the histoire de races and the mid-nineteenth century mania for categorization of racial “types.” For “Vénus Africaine” Cordier received a commission from the state and displayed it, along with “Nègre de Tombouctou,” in a collection of skulls in the ethnographic gallery of the Muséum de Histoire naturelle in Paris.

Honour’s investigation into the relation between aesthetics and racial theories received perhaps its most interesting, albeit problematical treatment, in his discussion of Orientalism in painting. From its earliest definition, I’Orient, at least from the French perspective (Orientalism was rare in American painting), was the opposite and thus lesser side of the “Occident.” Les Orientales, significantly the title of an 1829 volume of poems by Victor Hugo, included Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Persian, Arab, Spanish, and African. Not surprisingly, Europeans are almost conspicuously absent from Orientalist works; their presence as recorders or “showmen,” only implied. The Orient was the meeting ground of aesthetics and exoticism, exoticism and eroticism. Delacroix’ “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” (1834) based on his North African travels, anticipated a number of paintings of the harem scene, focused on the image of the odalisque, the slave of sensual pleasure, the fantasy of many European men. The image of the white odalisque—nude, recumbent, sensual— reminiscent of classical goddesses and nymphs, conformed to European ideas of female beauty and focused many depictions of the harem scene. Also a fixture in that scene was the dark-skinned eunuch, sexually impotent guardian of the beautiful and, for him, unattainable odalisque. Images of virile blacks in the company of white women were rare in painting before the late 19th century. Before then, black men were seldom shown in physical contact with white women.

Theodore Chasseriau’s “Othello beside Desdemona’s Corpse” (1847), clearly inspired by the genre of harem paintings, is an exception, but one which captures nevertheless 19th-century (and 20th, for that matter) anxieties about racial intermixture on both sides of the Atlantic. Honour notes that throughout the 19th century Othello provided subject matter for painters throughout Europe, and was the most frequently illustrated of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Unlike English artists who tended to give Othello dark skin but European features, Chasseriau depicted Othello as an Arab. The painting stresses the contrast between the whiteness of Desdemona and the blackness of Othello. He is the dominant male; she, the “ideal of soft, yielding femininity.” In thus racializing these oppositions, the painting captures the “mixture of disgust and pruriency with which the coupling of Othello and Desdemona could be regarded.” That Chasseriau’s painting of Othello as Arab may not have been intended for public exhibition only underlines the socio-cultural prohibition against black men coupling with white women.

Honour’s readings of the harem paintings in “Orientalist” art go far to examine their psychosexual dimensions, but they don’t go far enough. While he does note that these scenes are “sexist as well as racist,” his focus is decidely on their racist dimensions. He seems far more concerned to note the fact that black men were not shown as “masters of harems” until the late 19th century. And in those rare instances in which they do show aggression and desire, the man’s body is hidden, leaving it to the spectator’s imagination to decide whether he is a eunuch. Such concerns with black male virility and emasculation flirt themselves with the stereotypes Honour wants to expose and critique. In addition, they spotlight male desire while glossing over the sexual objectification of women, which cannot be subordinated to a discussion of male emasculation and desire.

Honour handles more effectively those European visions of the Orient focused on slave markets, which permitted continuous indulgence in eroticism. Honour speculates that the paintings proliferated in European art exhibitions after emancipation in the U.S. because they “appealed and may always have appealed, to libidinous as much as philanthropic instincts.” But more, “they may have reflected male desires for the absolute possession of women.”

Whether of the harem scene or the slave market, Orientalist art rested on “the myth of an unchanging Orient as the antithesis of the dynamically progressive Occident.” The Orient was “a timeless world where material progress had been halted.” These myths provide a basis for understanding such problematical concepts as “primitivism,” particularly as used to describe African sculpture. Honour explains that “what is nowadays called primitive or tribal art was studied only by ethnologists until the twentieth century” when African sculpture came to be admired for its “”otherness” its freedom from European conventions . . .its apparent spontaneity and sometimes roughness of workmanship.” These were considered marks of “undeveloped Primitivism,” setting l’art nègre outside history, but more importantly outside Europe. That way, the myth of Africa’s “savagery” and Europe’s “civilization” could be left intact.

A signal strength of these two volumes is just this sense, to borrow from Matisse, of all artists being “laden with the sentiments of artists who preceded [them], whether they are conscious of the freight of those sentiments or not.” And while Honour has done a provocative job of tracing the migration of the sentiments throughout Western art history, in fixing his gaze there, he becomes ironically complicit in the very processes he has so ably critiqued. With few exceptions, the images are drawn from the work of those artists which Western art history has constructed as “great”: Gericault, Delacroix, Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, to mention only the most famous of French artists. The work of blacks seldom appears. Thus in fulfilling one of the volume’s chief objectives: to demonstrate how the artistic production of the West profoundly maintains an “established order with its ranks, marginalizations, and exclusions,” Honour partly reinforces that order and reinscribes the dialectic of white dominance and black marginality, despite his best intentions. While his selections are clearly justified, given his choice to semanticize “Western” as “white,” one consequence of that choice is that the general (and perhaps even the expert) reader is left with the same familiar canvas of artists. That they are read against the grain of received tradition is substantial compensation, making these two volumes creditable additions to the growing and diverse discourses on “The West and the rest of us.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading