Review Arts History

When Art Colonises

About: Anne Lafont, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières, Les presses du réel

by Guillaume Mazeau , 28 September 2020
translated by Tiam Goudarzi
with the support of Institut français

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In a wide-ranging essay on the construction of race in Enlightenment art, Anne Lafont tracks down the responsibility of images in the naturalization of racial difference and the justification of colonialism.

This book is one of the very first major essays in French on the construction of race in Enlightenment art. Its first merit is to call into question our view of the subject: contrary to what one might think, the “African” is an omnipresent motif in the art of the imperial powers of the 18th century. But it is a motif that confines black people and renders them invisible, long before discourses and museums neutralised them or fetishised them at the time of the colonial taboo.

Anne Lafont’s method avoids the characteristic traps of minority history: instead of narrating the “rise” of a proto-racism to demonstrate (and denounce) the stability of its forms, the author attempts precisely to historicise—and to do so all the more implacably—the tangled, discontinuous and rather late process of racialisation, of which the visual forms are not only a vector, but also a laboratory. Anne Lafont also avoids the classical conceptions of the history of art or the history of representations, which isolate or hierarchise images without any connection to their visibility or reduce them to illustrations. The transnational point of view contributes as much to undoing national and imperial narratives as to avoiding overarching globalisations. As against the theses of the autonomy of art, Anne Lafont provides a fascinating overview of the role played by images in the naturalisation of racial difference, but also of sexual and social differences, which often follow similar trajectories.

The Politics of Drawing

In the first chapter, which is devoted to the “art of whiteness”, Anne Lafont shows that the motif of the young black page emerges along with the first policies of segregation by skin colour in the American colonies: Pierre Mignard’s 1682 portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth, whose whiteness is underscored by the presence of a young black woman, is painted one year before the fiscal measures targeting non-white people in the West Indies (1683) and three years before the promulgation of the Code Noir or “Black Code” (1685). In graphic arts, black people are reduced to social attributes, their colour only acquiring importance to provide contrast to the whiteness of the main subject. In the second half of the 18th century, the relegation of black people or people of mixed-race no longer derives solely from the strategies of distinction pursued by Catholics and nobles since the end of the 15th century: colour prejudice now forms part of a new, more radical logic of racialisation.

Contemporary discourses on art take part in these dynamics: “The white person [serves] to express light and the black person to express the lack [of it],” the famous amateur artist Claude-Henri Watelet says, thus justifying the submission of black people by assigning them to a darkness that, in the language of the Enlightenment, is another name for obscurantism. Chiaroscuro is thus not only an aesthetic: it is also a politics of white supremacy at the interior of empires that are exposed to many different forms of mixing.

Regarded as evidence of a degeneration of whiteness (one might have expected the author to engage here the recent theses of Claude-Olivier Doron), [1] albinos and ”piebald negroes” (who suffer from partial albinism) provoke curiosity at the time. Anne Lafont examines the stakes involved in this curiosity. These pages of the book bear witness to the corrective effect of a history that is capable of being cautiously empathetic, persuasive and committed. In dismantling the sexualizing colonial apparatuses that abuse the body of Genevieve, a young albino from Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), the historian is not able to deactivate the violence of the images, but allows us to perceive her existence beyond the screens of colonial art. She thus makes available the tools of a possible reappropriation. This nuanced and self-reflexive approach allows her to avoid the unfortunate indiscretions committed by the book Sexe, race et colonies: without adequate distancing, colonial images can continue to constitute a form of violence. [2]

A Visual Turn in the Human Sciences?

In Chapter 2, Anne Lafont shows that the banalisation of racial stereotypes is mainly brought about by the scientific images of the Enlightenment. Petrus Camper’s well-known horizontal series of profiles uncover immutable forms of the types depicted, as defined by the measurement of the facial angle. But in 1768, Camper, who is too often presented as one of the fathers of racial anthropology, is still only interested in showing the transformations undergone by a species whose unity he does not dispute. We have, then, to look further on, to around 1804, if we want to situate the racist turn in Western visual culture. While in the Caribbean, the former slaves are celebrating Haiti’s independence from France, in France itself, the dissolution of the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme, which was founded in the wake of the universalist utopias of the Directorate, secures the essentialising and differentialist turn of anthropological observation: guided by Cuvier’s instructions, which ask them to pay attention to the “protrusion of the snout” or the “shape of the sockets” of the “natural” people (i.e., the Aborigines of New Holland or present-day Australia), the artists of the Baudin expedition to the terres australes (1800-1804) lay out the foundations for a visual anthropology that is not based on the objectivity of the sketch “from life,” but on the racist interpretation of it. This interpretation is biased by the desire to isolate distinct types and to define the visual grammar of what was going to become craniometry. This turn happens late as compared to other histories of racialisation. And according to Anne Lafont, nothing is yet decided. It is not the pictures done in the field that are a problem, but rather their subsequent reproductions. Revised in 1824 by Jacques-Gérard Milbert, the portrait of Mororé, which was initially done by Nicolas Martin Petit (1802-1803), has become an anthropological print in which racist stereotypes abound. Cuvier’s wish that a “negro” cannot be represented simply as a “white person smeared with soot” (p. 117) is thus entirely fulfilled.

Revolutions and the Right to Representation

Nonetheless, the Enlightenment sanctions both the apex of the slave trade and the rise of anti-colonial critiques, both increasing segregation based on colour and the emergence of abolitionism. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the contrasts of this period. Marked by the Atlantic revolutions of the end of the century, it seems to promise people of colour a new right to visibility and to representation. Artists like Carmontelle and Maurice Quentin de La Tour paint portraits of black people that avoid reification and subjection. But the breach is narrow. Only a few faces break through the fog of millions who remain anonymous: like the proud face of the deputy Jean-Baptiste Belley, which was exhibited by Girodet at the 1797 Salon, or that of Yarrow Mamout by Charles Willson Peale (1819). For revolutions are also a time in which minorities excluded from the new citizenship are rendered invisible: Anne Lafont shows how the African-American Indian insurgent Crispus Attucks, one of the first victims of the Boston Massacre (5 March 1770), is erased from the first engravings of the event. Apart from a few exceptions, Atlantic revolutionary heroism is white and masculine, as the fate of Toussaint-Louverture, a “hero without image,” confirms (p. 211). Anne Lafont does not expand much on this, and yet black people also develop numerous strategies for escaping the stigma to which their skin colour exposes them. The visual straitjacket of black and white engravings also stimulates the art of camouflage. Thus, Moses Williams, a freed slave who worked, dressed as an Indian, in the Philadelphia museum of Charles Willson Peale, did his own silhouette with the physiognotrace machine that he was supposed to use for the clientele: a gesture of appropriation thanks to which the “cutter of profiles” chooses to give his professional identity priority over his racial identity, the blackness of the profile masking de facto the colour of his skin. [3]

Black People as Decorative Objects

Chapter 5 provides confirmation of the dignity that visual studies have accorded to the decorative arts. The motif of the “African” or “Negro” invades the well-to-do interiors of the Atlantic capitals that derive great profit from the slave trade. Thanks to its exoticism, it even gives a commercial value to the furniture of the first colonial capitalism (p. 254). Exhibited as signs of distinction in domestic or shop settings, these little-known “africaneries” nonetheless form the African counterpart to Orientalism: removed from their context, integrated into the “theatre of objects” of the Enlightenment, [4] these motifs are all the more powerful as trophies inasmuch as their character as furniture is neutralised. However, the tapestries and fine china sometimes contribute to disseminating other images: Anne Lafont reminds us that the kneeling slave that will become the emblem of British and French abolitionists was originally a medallion created by Josiah Wedgwood, an earthenware and porcelain entrepreneur. This duality is present in the last chapter, which shows that if the 18th century images legitimise colonial violence, they also sometimes contribute to raising public awareness about abolition: like the illustrations in chapter 19 of Candide or William Blake’s illustrations of the repression of slaves in Dutch Guyana (1772-1774).

Questioning the Power of Forms

As regards black people and their access to representation, the Enlightenment—which Antoine Lilti invites us to reread in light of its ambivalence, rather than drawing up indictments or making excuses [5]—will thus have been “paradoxical” to say the least, as Anne Lafont also underscores in her conclusion. These paradoxes of the Enlightenment—which have, moreover, already been frequently underscored by English-language work in Black or African-American Studies [6]—could perhaps have been used more as guiding thread to clarify the argument: the repeating and revisiting in this narrative, which is derived from an academic study, is the flipside of wanting to introduce doubt and complexity when confronted by the teleological steamroller of national narratives—but it also creates some confusion. Stimulating heir to studies that show the role of the scientific images of the Enlightenment in the quest for an (illusory) objectivity that naturalises constructed phenomena, [7] the second chapter is the chapter that is most open to discussion. Accustomed to fighting against the quasi (and misleading) monopoly of written documents in the modernists’ corpus, Anne Lafont probably overestimates and isolates the power of forms and of visual culture in the definition of a racist pseudo-science, as well as the credit they have in imperial policies—a credit that is difficult to verify without conducting an investigation at the imperial and transnational levels into their precise circulation and use.

While careful to deconstruct the racial categories of Western empires, the author momentarily forgets to abandon the use of the adjective “Anglo-Saxon,” even though it derives from the Anglo-Saxonism of the 19th century: an ideology, namely, that was propagated by British and American nationalists and that affirms both the existence and the superiority of a Saxon race. Finally, the book ignores the powerful visual models of trans-imperial manufacturing of race represented by the caste paintings of the Spanish Empire. [8] But such discussion merely reflects the impressive scope of a book that allows the Francophone public to gain access to issues that have long been well-established in the English-speaking world. A member of the advisory committee for the exhibition “The Black Model: From Géricault to Matisse”, which took place at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019, [9] Anne Lafont shows here that it is possible to decolonise the way we look at art without ceasing to hold together the threads of a possible common history connecting yesterday and today.

Anne Lafont, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières, Dijon, les presses du réel – Œuvres en société, 2019. 476 p., 32 €.

by Guillaume Mazeau, 28 September 2020

To quote this article :

Guillaume Mazeau, « When Art Colonises », Books and Ideas , 28 September 2020. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Claude-Olivier Doron, L’homme altéré: races et dégénérescence (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles), Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, 2016.

[2Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel, Gilles Boëtsch, Dominic Thomas and Christelle Taraud (eds.), Sexe, race et colonies, Paris, La Découverte, 2018.

[3Gwendolyn Du Bois Shaw, “Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic”, APS, Proceedings, CXLIX, 2005, pp. 22-39.

[4Manuel Charpy, Le théâtre des objets. Culture matérielle et identité bourgeoise au XIXe siècle, Flammarion, collection Histoire.

[5Antoine Lilti, L’héritage des Lumières. Ambivalences de la modernité, Paris, Seuil, EHESS, Gallimard, 2019.

[6Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011.

[7John Bender and Michael Marrinan, The Culture of Diagram, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2010; Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivité (2007), Les Presses du Réel, 2012.

[8Jean-Paul Zúñiga, “‘Muchos negros, mulatos y otros colores’. Culture visuelle et savoirs coloniaux au XVIIIe siècle”, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, vol. 68, n°1, 2013, pp. 45-76.

[9On the exhibition, see Catherine Guesde & Pauline Peretz, “Joseph, Madeleine, Laure et Zita: les visages noirs de la peinture française. Interview with Anne Lafont”, La Vie des idées, 10 May 2019

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