to be equals among equals

Tangled up in the tri-color. Girodet’s portrait of Belley is still a controversial painting whose implications remain pertinent and relevant, embroiled as we are in the same morass that followed the French Revolution.  Girodet was the first artist to cross that threshold into visual art for a mass market. To take art out of the stuffy Academy and provide it with an aesthetic of the democratic. His motives were murky, he was intuitive about the direction of the wind and was likely less than sincere, but at least temporarily, there was an understanding of universal precarity, a glimmer of eternal light within the darkness under the illumination of a full moon that bounced around a future utopia caught between a negative vision, nihilistic, and the redemptive promise of democracy.

Louis Leopold Boilly. Robespierre. Read More:

…It must, however, be pointed out that both their heads and phallic symbols are at the same level, which on Raynal can be found on the decorative marble frieze. Furthermore, we could easily argue that Belley situates Raynal‟s bust as much as Raynal‟s bust situates Belley. By 1797, Raynal‟s ideas had become anachronistic. Belley, on the other hand, representing the later days of the Revolution, evokes the earlier steps made by pioneers like Raynal. One could argue that the portrait does not celebrate abolitionism but rather provides a narrative for its evolution. We are presented with two very different figures whose interests in the issues of liberty and freedom were driven by different motives. Belley does not have the subservient, grateful black slave style that we so often see in 18th century images. He turns his head away from the outdated Raynal, looking on towards St-Dominigue, towards the future….

---Was the portrait of a blade man, despite its goal of particularity, despite the multiplication of appended modifiers, locked into the generalizing trap of extant templates? Was the deputy who identified himself with Brutus condemned to being seen in France as physically "bowed"? Did the rigidity of representation (and its gaps) dictate that the individual Boisson, upon arrival in France, would be stripped yet again? Girodet in his studio stared at Belley as the clerk had stared at Boisson. And he too faced the challenge of adapting an existing set of conventions and skills to the description of the particularity of a novel person. He and the clerk performed commensurate jobs.--- Read More:

…This portrait was painted in a time of contrasts, of tensions between ideas and races, at a time where prejudice was at its most intense. Was this narrative fuelling these tensions, or was it an attempt to dismantle them, by acknowledging human differences as well as a shared concern for human rights? Only five years later, slavery would be re-instilled by Bonaparte, the shared celebration being short-lived. Belley‟s worried expression warns us that the road to equality was still far ahead. Read More:

Girodet. Chateaubriand. Read More:

Was Belley’s status as French citizen and soldier undermined by Girodet? In comparing the Belley portrait with those of French Jacobins, the critique has been that although presented as incarnating virtue and dignity he is also shown to be lacking their vigor and heroism. A lack of energy and power. Rousseau’s noble savage dressed up, dolled up for a phot0 shoot but out of his natural habitat. To be lacking an active mind, to have a placid countenace and conveying a feeling of exaggerated relaxation, even lethargy. laziness. This is contrasted with French deputies whose exterior presentation was said to represent the identity of rationality and reason; of control over individual passions and desires. A firm hand on the tiller. The firm hand that made sure the Belley’s stayed at the back of the train. All these self-righteous, pompous portraits of Jacobins does bring to mind the Mencken quote that “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”

There is romantic hyperbole in the painting of Belley. A touch of the traumatic, but still in the grip of classical sanity. There is a lack of reason and self control on slow boil, waiting for its impulsive moment. But this living in the impulsive present is also compelling. It suggest history is intact and corroded by myth. The head, the statue of Raynal is the moon, evoking an aura that announces the onset of an episode of madness, hopefully a creative madness, a peaceful, productive lunacy.


…He held the position of the first black official in the French government, which role elevated this portrait to history painting. Belley was also an intellectual and political equal to the white men of his day, which was unheard of to many of his contemporaries. Girodet displays this equality through adoption of the Grand Tour portrait style. Girodet’s representation of Belley is remarkable in that he is presented as an individual, not a stereotype of a black man, yet this individual portrait transcended the barriers of public life to edify the Salon viewer. Even more significant is the early date at which this was painted in connection with the accepted views of black images as set forth by Said.

This is not the image of a subjugated black pawn, but an empowered individual who was perhaps recognized as such in his own day as well as the present. This portrait is a revolutionary portrayal of a black man that could only be produced by Girodet and in 1797. Without the backdrop of the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, such a work would have been almost heretical. Girodet chose Grand Tour portraits as his model in order to further highlight his own artistic prowess, as well as to demonstrate Belley’s social and political status, his travel, and most notably his education. All of these aspects were part of Belley’s individuality. Belley’s subject allowed Girodet to appeal to a mass audience, engaging each individual on a different level. Each of the three individuals associated with this work (Belley, Raynal and Girodet) were controversial individuals within French Revolutionary society, and they have been studied in order to elucidate the varied understanding the audience had of their relationship within the work. This plurality causes the work’s interpretation to be ever-evolving and …
Girodet’s representation of Jean-Baptiste Belley expanded the possibilities of representations of

ks in many ways. Though Said’s publication of Orientalism offered a new mode of understanding paintings of the “other” hitherto unexplored, his theory is insufficient in explaining Belley’s portrayal within this work. Read More:

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