Theses Doctoral

Seeing Laure: Race and Modernity from Manet's Olympia to Matisse, Bearden and Beyond

Murrell, Denise M.

During the 1860s in Paris, Edouard Manet and his circle transformed the style and content of art to reflect an emerging modernity in the social, political and economic life of the city. Manet's Olympia (1863) was foundational to the new manner of painting that captured the changing realities of modern life in Paris. One readily observable development of the period was the emergence of a small but highly visible population of free blacks in the city, just fifteen years after the second and final French abolition of territorial slavery in 1848. The discourse around Olympia has centered almost exclusively on one of the two figures depicted: the eponymous prostitute whose portrayal constitutes a radical revision of conventional images of the courtesan. This dissertation will attempt to provide a sustained art-historical treatment of the second figure, the prostitute's black maid, posed by a model whose name, as recorded by Manet, was Laure. It will first seek to establish that the maid figure of Olympia, in the context of precedent and Manet's other images of Laure, can be seen as a focal point of interest, and as a representation of the complex racial dimension of modern life in post-abolition Paris. It will then examine the continuing resonance and influence of Manet's Laure across successive generations of artists from Manet's own time to the present moment. The dissertation thereby suggests a continuing iconographic lineage for Manet's Laure, as manifested in iteratively modernizing depictions of the black female figure from 1870 to the present. Artworks discussed include a clarifying homage to Manet by his acolyte Frédéric Bazille; the countertypical portrayal by early modernist Henri Matisse of two principal black models as personifications of cosmopolitan modernity; the presentation by collagist Romare Bearden of a black odalisque defined by cultural, rather than sexual, attributes metaphoric of the cultural hybridity of African American culture; and direct engagement with Manet's depiction of Laure by selected contemporary artists, including Maud Sulter and Mickalene Thomas, often with imagery, materials and processes also influenced by Matisse or Bearden. In each case, the fitfully evolving modernity of the black female figure will be seen to emerge from each artist's fidelity to his or her transformative creative vision regardless of the representational norms of the day. The question of what, if anything, is represented by Manet's idiosyncratic depiction of the prostitute's black maid has seldom been comprehensively addressed by the histories of modern art. The small body of published commentary about Manet's Laure, with a few notable exceptions, generally dismisses the figure as meaning, essentially, nothing -- except as an ancillary intensifier of the connotations of immorality attributed to the prostitute. Manet's earlier portrait of Laure, rich in significations relevant to her portrayal in Olympia, is even more rarely discussed, and typically seen as a study for Olympia, rather than as a stand-alone portrait as this analysis suggests. The image of Laure as Olympia's maid is frequently oversimplified as a racist stereotype, a perspective that belies the metonymic implications of a figure that is simultaneously centered and obscured. It is in the extensive body of response to Laure's Olympia pose by artists, more than by historians, that the full complexity and enduring influence of the figure's problematic nuance can be seen. This dissertation, like the artists, takes its cues from the formal qualities of Manet's images of Laure, in the context of precedent images and the fraught racial interface within Manet's social and artistic milieu, to suggest new and revisionary narratives. It suggests that Manet's Laure can be seen as an early depiction of an evolving cultural hybridity among black Parisians- visible in Laure's placement, affect and attire--that took shape during the early years of the newly built northern areas of Paris that are today home to some of the largest black populations in central Paris. Within this context, an iconographic legacy of ambivalent yet innovative modernity can be asserted for the Laure figure -extending from Delacroix to Matisse, Bearden and beyond. This lineage can be seen as parallel to the long-established pictorial lineage for Manet's figuring of the prostitute Olympia. What is at stake is an art-historical discourse posed as an intervention with the prevailing historical silence about the representation and legacy of Manet's Laure, and by derivation about the significance of the black female muse to the formation of modernism. This analysis suggests that the black female figure is foundational to the evolving aesthetics of modern art. It suggests that Olympia's standing as a progenitor of modern painting can only be enhanced by breaking through the marginalization of Laure's representational legacy. It asserts that it is only when the bi-figural significance of Manet's Olympia is recognized that the extent and influence of Manet's radical modernity can be most fully understood.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Higonnet, Anne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 22, 2014