Which Black?: An Investigation of late 19th & early 20th century Parisian Visual Culture from the Perspective of the Black Artist
Which Black? refers to the assumption that Africans and African Americans are different because they are geographically and historically separated, as well as the assumption that they share the same culture because they share the same complexion.
In the 19th century, blacks faced many social, economic, and educational obstacles in the United States. This was especially true for the black artist. The African American artist faced many years of social and educational challenges, and these adversities prompted some black artists to study and work abroad. The exhibition Which Black? was inspired by my interest in the perception and reception of African Americans in foreign countries at the turn of the 20th century. I chose to focus on Paris because of its reputation as a haven for pre-American Civil War African Americans and for France’s colonialist practices in Africa.
The goal of Which Black? is to provide a comprehensive examination of the visual culture that African Americans were exposed to during their art education and practice in late 19th to mid-20th century Paris. Photographs of these artists, their studios, the educational institutions they attended, and their former residences in Paris document their physical work, study, and living space. Text and supplemental images of the artists’ works provide context to the photographs and their relevance to the overall theme of the exhibition. Additionally, images and texts of late 19th to mid-20th century Parisian visual culture and the Paris 1900 International Exposition are also included.
In the 19th century, black Americans were still plagued by venomous racism and devastating poverty, all the while remaining at the bottom of the American social structure. Most were sharecroppers who had limited access to what at best could be considered substandard education. Faced with the constant threat of lynchings, southern blacks were forced to live their lives as if still under the conventions of slavery. At that time, the South was the poorest region of the country, so the promise of a better life in the North prompted northern migrations. In the North, African Americans generally found better jobs and a somewhat improved racial climate. According to author Tyler Stovall, “They were still relegated to the worst jobs, the worst schools, and the worst neighborhoods…Even though life in the North offered better opportunities than the South, it was very clear that blacks remained a victimized and oppressed caste excluded from the mainstream of American life.” 1 According to authors Mary Frances Berry and John Blessingame, “The black artist played a significant role in creating preconditions for large-scale protest movements among Afro-Americans.” 2 Their works, which contained imagery that inspired a demand for equality, helped shape and transform the consciousness of blacks. As social conditions and access to education began to improve, education and career opportunities for black artists did not. Even white artists were not satisfied with the educational opportunities they were afforded, as art was not supported in the US and there were few art schools, in fact, one of the first art educational institutions, Art Students League of New York, wasn’t founded until the end of the 19th century in New York.
At this time, Paris was the art capital of the world and had begun attracting artists from around the world, and soon American artists would succumb to its allure. The city’s art schools, museums, and exhibition spaces were unmatched. White visual artists such as John Singer Sargent, J. Alden Weir, and Martha Walter were among the first wave of artists to venture to the City of Light. African American artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palmer Hayden, Albert Alexander Smith, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Hale Woodruff, Augusta Savage, and Archibald Motley, Jr. would soon follow suit. These African American artists were not only seeking to decipher and absorb the techniques and skills of master painters and sculptors just as their American counterparts, they were also fleeing the oppressive racism and segregation in the United States. The relief from prejudice coupled with the promise of studying the masterpieces in the Louvre and seeing the modern works on display at the Salons, world’s fairs, and other exhibitions robbed the artists of the ability to notice the racism within the visual culture they would encounter during their stay in Paris.
France’s colonial relationship with Africa served as the foundation of Parisian visual culture in the late 19th to early 20th century. From the 17th century when the first Huguenots arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1671 to the 20th century, Africa was subjected to French military invasions and occupations resulting in widespread French territorial conquests. 3 By the late 18th century, these incursions were deemed acceptable based on racist pseudo-scientific experiments and ethnographic descriptions of Africans. By the end of the 19th century, one of the most salient aspects of the Western ideas about Africa was the characterization of Africans as the negative antithesis of Westerners. Based on Western conceptualizations of race and assumptions about character associated with physical appearance, a system of binary oppositions began to operate in textual and pictorial production. Africans were seen as “primitive” as opposed to the “civilized” Westerners. Other juxtapositions, expressed in visual forms as well, were the “naked” and “clothed” categories and the “light” and “dark” metaphor, which implied the superiority of the light (“pure”) Westerners over the dark (“impure”) Africans. In their totality, these and other juxtapositions constitute a racist code underlying much of the Western popular constructs or stereotypes of Africans. 4 Attempts to rectify this racist attitude would become the impulse of 19th and 20th century Parisian pop-culture.
Sparked in part by an effort to repair its tarnished global reputation and relationship with Africa, the French adopted the term negrophilie, which literally means “love of the negro.” It was a term that avant-garde artists used amongst themselves to describe their passion for black culture. The fascination experienced by artists, and soon the whole of France, found its roots in attempts to be modern and fashionable; however, these efforts manifested themselves in the perpetuated notion of the ‘primitive’ black. The notion of this ‘primitivised’ black culture would soon serve as a major marketing tool for commercial advertisements in Paris and would be on display for all to see, including those African American artists who were fleeing a society that normalized racist proclamations.
The images these newly arriving artists saw of blacks in popular culture – as exotic, savage, and inferior – must have been confusing for those who not understand the French differentiation between African Americans and Africans. For example, Palmer Hayden thought it would easier if he claimed to be Martinican because of his trouble with adopting the French language. His tutor advised him that it would be to his advantage to be American, as the French treated their colonial subjects with less respect and addressed them in the familiar. 5 This complex idea that Africans and African Americans share one monolithic identity, and conversely the notion that they are completely disconnected is exactly what Which Black? addresses.
1 Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, (Houghton Mifflin: New York, 1996), 3.
2 Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, (Oxford Press: New York, 1982), 354.
3 Bertrand van Ruymbeke and Randy J. Sparks, Memory and Identity: The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 290.
4 Christraud M. Geary. “Central Africa in Popular Imagery,” in In and Out of Focus, (PhilipWilson: London, 2002), 24.
5 Theresa Leininger-Miller, New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934, (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 74.