28 May 2019

Look Again

Finding new stories in iconic art
by Julia Hanna


Denise Murrell (MBA 1980)
photo by Annie Tritt

All curators want to help us see art with new eyes—to uncover a missing perspective that adds to our appreciation of the work itself and maybe even sheds light on contemporary society. Denise Murrell’s (MBA 1980) recent exhibition at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery did just that, focusing attention on how black figures have been depicted in artwork ranging from the often-overlooked servant in Édouard Manet’s Olympia to artists of the Harlem Renaissance and today. The exhibit, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, grew out of Murrell’s 2014 PhD dissertation—a degree she pursued after working in finance for more than 25 years.

“People are really responding to the opportunity to find compelling ways to reconsider iconic artists,” says Murrell, now in the role of co-curator of Le modèle noir, de Géricault à Matisse, at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay through July 21. “Due to broader societal changes, museums are acknowledging that they need to rethink the way they present art to the general public—that they need to draw a broader, younger, more diverse audience reflective of contemporary demographics. Going forward, I hope I won’t have to work as hard to make a case for introducing new narratives about artists and periods that people think they already know well.”


Courtesy Musée Fabre

Frédéric Bazille’s La Toilette (above) and Young Woman with Peonies (below) demonstrate the influence of social norms on artists’ choices, Murrell says:

Frédéric Bazille’s La Toilette (right) and Young Woman with Peonies (below) demonstrate the influence of social norms on artists’ choices, Murrell says:

“In La Toilette (1869–70), Bazille depicts the same black model very differently: beautifully painted as an exotic, bare-breasted servant to a white odalisque, or prostitute. This was a very accepted way for black women to be portrayed in 19th-century art—and in fact, Bazille submitted this piece for inclusion in the Paris Salon of 1870.”

“The model has her back to the viewer and is kneeling in service; it’s a marked contrast to her central position and direct gaze in Young Woman with Peonies, which was inspired by the artist Édouard Manet’s exhortation to be a painter of modern life.”


Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Bazille’s Young Woman with Peonies (1870) is a striking work for its time that also marks a point of departure for the artist, who was moving from traditional compositions such as La Toilette (above) to a more modern, realist approach to his subject—in this case, an unidentified but well-paid black model. (Bazille wrote to his father requesting more money to keep her on so that he could continue his work.) Murrell offers a few additional points of context:

“Bazille’s depiction of the same model in La Toilette shows her as a figure on the edge of the canvas. Here, she is a free, black Parisian, just as the model was in real life, in the period following the final French abolition of territorial enslavement in 1848. I read her to be a flower vendor, based on the fact that there are photos from the period of French Caribbean women selling flowers and foodstuffs in Paris.”

“In more traditional scenes, the black woman’s gaze does not meet ours; instead she is usually looking at her employer. Here, Bazille depicts her alone, with no mistresses to marginalize her, and gives her a direct but enigmatic expression that retains a sense of independence and privacy. I like that she’s serious, that she’s not playing to the viewer. She is modest, even unremarkable, just a part of everyday life.”

“This painting was not created to be shown publicly; it was a gift for Bazille’s sister. That possibly gave him more freedom to follow Édouard Manet’s modernist lead—in fact, this painting has been read as Bazille’s tribute to Manet, who loved peonies and grew them in his garden at Gennevilliers.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1980, Section G

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