Subjugation and Liberation


If you happen to visit the Met and the Whitney Museum in a single day, you can make a rather remarkable comparison between two sculptures depicting Black women: French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved!, from 1868, and Harlem Renaissance sculptor Richmond Barthé’s African Dancer, from 1933.

Carpeaux’s sculpture was the subject of a thoughtful exhibition that just closed at the Met and is a work that I spent a bit of time thinking about in my seminar Reclaiming the Black Body in European Art. In the recent exhibit, the power and the problem of the work was obscured slightly by its display on a high pedestal, which made it difficult to fully comprehend the figure’s pose. We might imagine that the figure is turned away from the viewer, but her gaze locates us behind and above, placing us in the role of her oppressor. Although Carpeaux sought to celebrate abolition, the sculpture re-enacts a scene of subjugation.

In contrast, the body of Barthé's dancer has a very different relationship to the viewer. Rather than look away, the dancer’s eyes are closed, and thus she does not perform for us, but looks within herself as she moves her body in space. Although at first glance her body may seem static, if you attempt to inhabit a similar form in your own body, you will find that her pose is full of movement and ready to propel forward. The agency that Barthé gives his dancer is particularly striking when considered in relation to Carpeaux's sculpture.


Space is still available in my lunchtime Zoom workshop Looking at Art to Nurture Your Child. The next session runs on Tuesdays or Thursdays for 4 weeks from April until May. Join us and discover your capacity to make meaning in the moment with the people you love. Free orientation sessions on 4/18 and 4/20.


If the recent NYT article about problems at the women’s leadership network Chief piqued your interest, you’ll enjoy this critique of The Story of Art Without Men as “regressive girl-boss feminism” from the Penitent Review.

Early modern historian Pamela H. Smith, who founded the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, has a new book out: From Lived Experience to the Written Word that was recently profiled in an article from Hyperallergic.

Check out this blog post about the nineteenth-century African-American lion tamer Martini Maccomo and his career touring in the United Kingdom by historian Steve Ward in the Journal of Victorian Culture online.


Tyler Green of the Modern Notes Podcast recently interviewed art historian Jennifer Van Horn about her new book Portraits of Resistance: Activating Art During Slavery.


On Monday, the exhibition Juan de Pareja: Afro-Hispanic Painter opens at the Met. The exhibit contextualizes Pareja’s work with paintings by other 17th-century artists depicting Spain’s Black and Morisco populations and through Arturo Schomburg’s scholarship on Pareja during the Harlem Renaissance. Great installation photos here and here.

The exhibition Manet / Degas just opened this past week at the Museé d’Orsay and will travel to the Met this fall. Check out the wonderful exhibition photos here, here, and here.

Rijksmuseum exhibition Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery at the United Nations Headquarters in NYC closed this week. (My photo of the installation here.) The exhibition website continues on and is a great resource.

Emily Dickinson copied poems by hand and sewed them into small booklets. These are now on view in an exhibition at the Houghton Library at Harvard on self publishing.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to send along your thoughts. Until next week!

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Jamie Larson