belley up

He may be viewed as a rebel or a thrill seeker,a radical,  but he never did leave the mainstream. Girodet’s representation of the liberation of slaves, equality, had little to do with liberation; he was a democrat of the most elitist sort, the typical champagne socialist who viewed emancipation form the John Stuart Mill perspective: shift the use of Black people from one sector to the next, all in contradiction to the revolutionary slogans of equality and liberty.  Art movements had begun, and art personalities competed for attention, which implied colonialism could be shown, but under a new guise, but still serving the oppressors. The new narrative would invoke myth and deprive the individual of his liberty and memory, but not his existence. The theme could be termed amputation. The mythic image always denying a personal history which would help impede Blacks from threatening the lucrative colonial system. Keep them neither free nor French. Girodet provided a new visual vocabulary for art that collapsed the existing conventions by discarding the assumptions of classicism, or corrupting them, but shared the same views towards Africans; just approaching the issue from a more emotional and paradoxical perspective.

Biard. ---Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 23rd April 1848, 1849 (oil on canvas) by Biard, Francois Auguste (1798-1882); 261x391 cm; Chateau de Versailles, France;

For one thing, Girodet did very well for himself, considering he died in  1824, relatively young and given and the violent twists in French politics.Girodet had an exile in America, and basically stopped painting after 1813. It could be said he had a sense of immaculate timing in catering to  trends. The Belley portrait fir perfectly into the Republican vision of the politically correct, at least for propaganda purposes: The noble Jacobin, soldier and savage reflecting Rousseau’s thought.  A few years later this leaning towards democracy and diversity was jettisoned;   Girodet lobbied the emperor  for a series of commissions, and a full-dress portrait done to the hilt shows exactly the the rule of power, if not a near divine right it ostensibly replaced. So, Romanticism did not begin or end out of a vacuum.   It appeared radical and new, but the innovation was essentially in the packaging, with almost identical ideals in new arrangements. They were still left with the old or new/old problems that kept pace with industrialization, consumerism and popular appeal;  which meant stylistic adjustments to mask the similarities. As John Haber has asserted, ” It kept the eighteenth-century theater and confrontations between nature and culture that would have made sense even to George Stubbs, but increasingly the artist and viewer take center stage along with the painted actors. The confrontations of Edouard Manet and the avant-garde really do lie directly ahead.”

…If one looks at Jean-Louis Laneuville‟s Portrait of Bertrand Braère de Vieuzac2 from 1793, we find a calm and restrained man addressing the National Convention, wearing simple garments and who is juxtaposed against an empty background. Both elements refer to Rousseau‟s discourse of truth, which argued that man is at his best when in his most natural state and not when faced with the ills of sophisticated civilization.

--Read More:

Though Belley shares his calm features, it could be said that his luxurious, almost over-the top clothing and what could be considered obnoxious facial features (a snarled nose and indifferent gaze purposely not meeting the eyes of the viewer) take away the necessary heroic and humble features of a true Revolutionary idol. Furthermore, 18th century ideas of physiognomy endorsed by philosophes such as Johann Kaspar Lavater did not help Belley‟s case. Lavater held that white men were autonomous, self defined individual beings, as we can see in Bertrand Braère‟s portrait, whereas the black man‟s personality and features have been determined a priori15 and are therefore anonymous and unanimous at
the same time. Marie-Benoit Gouly, one of Belley‟s opponents, argued that on the contrary, black people had no physiognomy at all and were therefore tragically incapable of communicating internal states to others, in fact, she claims that he raises doubts as to whether black people had internal states at all. Therefore, based on 18th century thought, Belley would have had no personality and no individuality, and therefore no internal state….

---There is much in Barthes's analysis of the mythic image's naturalization of historical conditions and reliance upon the sheer vitality of presence that describes the effect of Girodet's portrait of Belley, the black man in French uniform who seems at once so "rich, fully experienced, and spontaneous" and so "stubborn and silently rooted," so replete with epochal history (garrulously expressed) and so unavailable as a specific history (silent). Barthes compels the historian to constitute the personal history - the "primary" facts - of the specific black soldier who salutes the French flag in the photograph. However, his scathing appraisal of the glossy magazine cover, written when mounting colonial resistance irrevocably challenged the legitimacy of France's empire,...Read More:

…However, through closer observation of the portrait, it seems that this previous statement could easily be rebutted. His greying hair denotes seniority, signalling a personal feature over a typological one. His high forehead and furrowed brow insinuates superior intelligence. His facial expression suggest anything but anonymous with emotions ranging from homesickness and pessimism to intellectual gravity and seriousness. Girodet is not trying to prove the existence of the internal state of Belley but rather what is beneath the surface. It is clear that while Belley must maintain an impression of having a sense of self in order to break from the anonymous stereotype, he still cannot exhibit too much emotion at risk of being likened to an animal. Without possession of self, ultimately one is a slave. He must also remain self contained and seemingly emotionless in order to be seen as respectable and calm like a proper Revolutionary politician should. Girodet manages to reflect Belley‟s contradicting duality, whether this coexistence be imposed by Belley himself or by 18th century French society….


…Another element that denotes Belley‟s sense of self is his highly emphasized genitalia. Some claim that this and his overtly sensuous pose threaten to subordinate Belley to racial typology, though one must not forget Girodet‟s own sensuality. Taking other sensuous, homoerotic paintings from the artist‟s oeuvre into account, it could be said that Girodet was attracted to Belley. The folds multiplying around the genitalia and his elegant large hand pointing towards it only emphasize his sex even further, hinting a sexual power. Though it was common to read of sexual black bodies in text, 18th century images usually represented black male bodies as asexualized, dependent on the white body to the extent of being infantilized. Belley‟s sexuality can be seen as empowering, but moreover, it represents his own volition and self-control.

That a black man be made approachable sexually, or at least hinted as such, could be read as a statement of equality. Girodet referred to Belley as “citizen”, indicating respect, though the piece had initially been titled Portrait d’un nègre, as most portraits of black men were called….The most obvious and perhaps most important contradiction in Belley‟s portrait is the striking contrast between philosopher l‟Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal‟s white marble bust and Belley‟s black
figure. Raynal himself was quite a contradiction. As he is prominently known as an abolitionist and activist, viewers are lead to assume that the work‟s subject is the celebration of abolitionism. The fact of the matter is, however, Raynal was more in line with the philanthropists, who wished to improve the living conditions of slaves without perceiving them as equals….Read More:
In Revolutionary imagery, white men required generalization to speak abstract principles rather than personal interests: only dead and naked could their obstinate individuality and self-investment be overcome. Blacks, by contrast, required selfhood to speak the abstract principle of liberty, because without property of self, they were relegated to slavery. Selfhood, it is worth emphasizing, was a prerequisite to political emancipation. Rousseau’s Social Contract relied, after all, upon his Confessions: political agency was premised on a heightened sense of self.” The Revolution’S (white) martyrs needed to transcend self-interest but only because they were presumed to possess the “seH” without which political and ethical agency remained inconceivable. Belley, by contrast, needed to establish his autonomous subjectivity. He was therefore, along wi th the other black deputies in Paris,

tter optimally suited to portraiture’s cult of selfhood (especially for a talented portraitist attempting to prove himself a history painter). Belley as well as Girodet would have understood this. Read More:


Gustave Boulanger. The Slave Market. Read More:

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Modern Arts/Craft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>