This week I attended the opening of a sensational new art exhibit Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today at the Wallach Gallery, Columbia University. The presentation debuts the curator Denise Murrell whose scholarly appraisal “explores the little known interfaces between the avant-gardists of nineteenth century Paris and the post-abolition community of free black Parisians.”
As an art history graduate at Columbia University Denise came across various artworks that included black females, where their presence was rarely acknowledged. It’s acutely apparent in Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia, who reclines nude on her bed, while her black maid stands behind her holding a bouquet, very much part of the tableau. As Denise observed in her New York Times interview with Hilarie M Sheets, “This woman is in full view but she’s invisible, ignored by the narrative.” Her 2014 dissertation included learning as much as possible about this model and other black female models to be found in classical artworks, eventually evolving into the Posing Modernity exhibition.
During her research Denise came upon Manet’s studio notebook dated 1892 where she learned of “Laure, a trés belle negrésse” who lived in the same neighborhood where Manet’s and other Impressionists’ studios in Northern Paris were. Black migrants had also settled in the same neighborhood after the abolition of territorial slavery in 1848. Her narrative encompasses the legacy of Laure and how Manet and his peers through to Romare Bearden and Mickalane Thomas give expression to the black female figure.
Denise is a friend and former client and we had chatted about the possibility of her exploring this subject years ago. She’s come such a long way since that initial idea struck her, including acquiring her Ph.D., Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar. She also introduced me to the dynamic female-centric work of Mickalene Thomas and was one of her early Patrons.
A very impressive show - congrats Denise!!