Framing Black Bodies

Professor Susan Libby’s new book on 19th-century art reveals the impact images have on race relations today.

Delving deeper into 19th-century French and British art as part of research for a book on representations of the black figure, Susan Libby aimed to explore new approaches to Europe’s depictions of people of African descent.

She and her co-editor, as well as the volume’s contributors, did, indeed, accomplish that. She also realized how much these images of blacks in paintings—however well meaning by the standards of the era—may have contributed to the ongoing racial misunderstandings of today.

Charles Boilly after Pierre Rouvier, “Soyez libres et citizens,” frontispiece to Benjamin Frossard’s La Cause des Esclaves Noirs, vol. 1, 1789. Engraving. (Image Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University) Charles Boilly after Pierre Rouvier, “Soyez libres et citizens,” frontispiece to Benjamin Frossard’s La Cause des Esclaves Noirs, vol. 1, 1789. Engraving. (Image Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)

Many of the attitudes prevalent in the 1800s, though patronizing, were used by Europeans to evoke sympathy for blacks in an effort to abolish slavery. “Blacks and Africans were seen in these images as charmingly exotic and in need of help, but generally not as dangerous,” says Libby, professor of art history. “They were portrayed as harmless, pitiable, childlike, and in need of protection.”

Yet most European portrayals did not contain the angry racist images found among pro-slavery advocates in North America during same time, including the years leading up to and following the Civil War. Libby believes that today’s racially charged debates over policing and politics show that remnants of all those earlier attitudes have been transmitted across the generations.

Libby and her coauthor, Adrienne Childs, an associate with the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, spent more than three years researching and writing their recently released book, Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century.

The book categorizes and analyzes the artistic depictions of Africans and dark-skinned people during the 1800s. The authors found that British and French artists often viewed their black subjects within two major frameworks. Blacks were seen either as exotic rarities with close links to the then-current notion of the “noble savage” or as simple, childlike beings who deserve—and require—the safety and care of whites.

“There was certainly a variety of ways that Europeans depicted people of African descent,” Libby says. “But it was usually in a more benign way than in America, where there was a great deal more fear.”

Britain and France had outlawed slavery earlier than the U.S., so that interactions with blacks in Europe were less frequent and not marked with the idea that people of African descent must be kept subjugated for fear of rebellion. “The British and French generally encountered blacks as people who lived far away. … They were people of nature and uncivilized. But the Europeans did not have the growing fear or images that made blacks seem more and more animalistic.” Although whites in the colonies, such as Haiti and Jamaica, lived in fear of their slaves, it was the Europeans in their countries who produced the imagery, where there was no plantation slavery to readily observe.

Recently, Libby has been dismayed, but not surprised, to find those centuries-old attitudes in national news stories. For example, the way former police officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown, the 18-year-old he shot and killed in a confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri in August. The officer described Brown as looking like a “demon” with the power of a “Hulk Hogan,” who seemed “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” Those descriptions, she said, were consistent with stereotypes of black men in the U.S. in the 1800s as having almost supernatural powers that would be used against whites, if not controlled.

While examining the artistic images of bygone periods cannot fully explain actions in the present day, Libby believes it’s worth noting that the accepted attitudes of the past leave a lasting impact and can tinge our thoughts and beliefs.

“We can dismiss it as ‘that was history and that we’ve moved beyond it,’ ” she says. “But I think it pervades our society.”