Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Portrait of the First Lady as a Young Slave

To see the article with the images in question, you must go here.

Spanish magazine Magazine Fuera de Serie has courted controversy by digitally altering an old portait of a breast-bearing Janet Jackson slave so that she has the head of Michelle Obama.  Or digitally-altered the head of Michelle Obama so that she has the body of a breast-baring slave.

Or both.

Some people are not impressed. 

According to the first the article I read about this artistic kerfuffle, this is one in a series of portraits of famous personalities' heads superimposed onto nudes.  Others will include Princess Di and beer-swilling Barack "the Red" Obama, as well as fearless vampire killer and broadsword duelist Abraham Lincoln.  As for this latter, we have it on good authority that this so-called "President" was in fact the real Abe's doppelganger!  Honest.

I don't know the intentions of the artist who did this po-mo montage; certainly controversy stokes curiosity and sales, but it makes me think of the evolution of African-American status since the abolition of slavery a relatively short 150 years ago, through the harsh years of Jim Crow and the failure of "separate but equal."  America is still rife with racial tensions, but hey, what other non-African nation has elected a black President or Prime Minister?  You've come a long way, baby.

It's not hard to see why this will offend, even if the article itself (10 Oct.) begins with a reminder of the old proverb "behind every great man is an even greater woman."  It's not the whole text, but it appears from my crooked Spanish to be a prelude to a positive examination of the First Lady.  Which may only exacerbate objections that she be depicted as a slave.

Then again, perhaps some credit can be given for the choice of which original painting to manipulate.  Marie-Guillemine Benoist was a rarity for her time, a woman artist respected enough that this portrait was exhibited in the Louvre's annual Salon in 1800.  Both she and her sister, artist Marie-Élisabeth Laville-Leroux, studied under Jacques-Louis David beginning in 1781, just after he'd been made a member of the Royal Academy and been privileged by the King with lodgings in the Louvre.  According to Wiki-wack, the painting "became a symbol for women's emancipation and black people's rights."  Portrait d'une négresse was purchased by King Louis XVIII in 1818, despite the fact that the artist had been commissioned for an official portrait of Napoleon, defininitely persona non grata among the Bourbons, a few years after it was painted.  These were good times for her, as she won a gold medal at the salon in 1804.

The good times of didn't last long for Benoist (nor for most women in France, who only gained suffrage in 1944), whose image of emancipation, as evinced by the King's purchase, was more acceptable than the fact that the medium in this case, was the message; that is to say, a painting by a woman..


Her career was harmed by political developments, however, when her husband, the convinced royalist count Benoist, was nominated in the Conseil d'État during the post-1814 monarchy come-back called the Bourbon Restoration. Despite being at the height of her popularity, she had to abandon her career, both painting and exposing, due to her devoir de réserve [duty of reserve] and the strongly enforced conservatism of the reactionary regime. 

Somehow that seems a twisted-to-fit metaphor for what many liberals fear about a Romney/Ryan presidency.  Maybe this discredits the choice, or maybe it is a warning of sorts by the Spanish editors of Magazine.

As had been the case with most women artists working at the time, Benoist fit the middle and upper class ideal of "womanhood" in her conforming to the social expectations of women to marry, raise children, and forego a career.  (See link below).

A cautionary tale?  When the negresse was painted, the artist was at the height of her powers and recognition.  A decade or so later she had to put aside her career to be the dutiful wife.  For Benoist, the clock was turned back on progress towards womens' equality.

So we present this here, a bit befuddled, in the tradition of our series of posts about odd political imagery.  Our most recent entry here also includes links to previous photos.

For a lengthy examination of this painting, have a read of: Slavery is a Woman:  Race, Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist's Portrait d'une négresse (1800) by James Smalls.


  1. I wonder if they'll post pictures of Romney relating back to the history of Mormonism?

    1. I saw a picture of Romney and under his shirt you see his, uh, undershirt, which appears to have the same exact configuration as contemporary Mormon "sacred underwear" (which I saw in a picture, not on a Mormon). I'm sure this theme of magic undies will be exploited at some moment or other. And polygamy. And baptising the dead, and becoming the god of your own private universe after death, etc. etc. Mormons have some pretty "non-Biblical" beliefs. Except for the polygamy.

    2. Yeah, you're right. It's silly/naive of me to think that Romney's religious beliefs won't be exploited by those who don't want to see him win.

      I guess that I do think that your religion is a personal choice--and therefore an expression/realization of your beliefs--which does make it more fair game for criticism than the color of one's skin.

      On the other hand, I'm open to viewing this photo as not being intended to criticize M.O., but, instead, for intending to highlight/capitalize upon racial tensions. (I do, however, have a hard time seeing it as a celebration of bad times gone.)

    3. My take is that it's illustrating how far black have come in the US since this was painted. From slavery to the Presidency. Also, but maybe I'm giving the artist too much credit, it's a jab at the possible consequences of a conservative counterpunch which would be embodied by a Romney victory. Like the artist (Benoist) could be read as a metaphor for Michelle and women everywhere when conservatives get (back) into power. Not that I think that's what'll happen. Bush had plenty of women and minorities on his team; I think it would be insulting to them to beleive they were some kind of affirmative action sop. Conservatives seem to have no problem with women in office or in position of authority. At least if Condoleeza Rice is any indication.

    4. Where's the like button around here? Because I like your comment.


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