4 Slavery and Abolition

Jingyue Zhang

How much information can a portrait contain? Many paintings can reflect the social environment and understanding the social environment at that time can also better understand the works. A good painting may reflect the characteristics of the time, aesthetic features, and social environment. Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine is a good example.

First, the uniqueness of the Portrait of Madeleine reflects the time period. Marie-Guillemine Benoist created the painting in 1800. Slavery was first abolished in France in 1794, which means that the painting was created at the beginning of its abolition. The contradictory elements in the painting are also a reflection of the society of the time. In paintings of the slavery period, the representation of Black slaves was generally used as a color complement to white women of the aristocracy. However, this painting focuses on a Black woman as its main subject, which may reflect the changed social status of former slaves at that time. However, the picture shows a woman with her breasts bared, which is a bit demeaning—is this a comment on the social environment of the time when the status of Black people was improved but still in an environment full of oppression? In addition, black women in France generally worked as servants or maids, but the Madeleine in the painting has the jewelry and makeup like those of the upper class.

Who was this woman? Since France was at the early stage of slavery abolition at that time, there was a lot of room for debate on the identity and social status of black women. There have been many artists who have speculated about her identity, and there are some researchers that can prove her identity, but this does not make the painting any less contradictory and mysterious.

Second, the appearance of Portrait of Madeleine provided a new vision of the artistic aesthetic of the time. The mystery of the painting comes not only from the uncertainty of the woman’s identity but also from the challenge to the artistic aesthetics of the time. Before this time portraits were generally only available to the upper classes, and even paintings with black people were shown as a foil for white people, which brought the suggestion that dark skin was not as elegant and noble as white skin in the painting aesthetic. The painting mainly expresses the beautiful side of black women. For example, Madeleine has a calming demeanor, delicate earrings, and a beautiful appearance. This gave the art field of the time a fresh aesthetic perspective that dark-skinned women could also be elegant and beautiful.

Finally, the appearance of Portrait of Madeleine reflects the rising status of women at the time. The creator is also a female artist, and although Benoist herself is an upper-class person, her ability to study and produce influential works represents the increased power of women at the time. Furthermore, Madeleine’s accessories and calm demeanor suggest that she had a certain social status.

In conclusion, there are many works that imply a lot of information about the context of the time, and people not only appreciate the works but also combine them with historical information about the time when they were created so that the meaning of the works can be better understood. On the other hand, these paintings also reflect the fascination of history in various ways.


Smalls, James. “Slavery Is a Woman: ‘Race,’ Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s Portrait D’une Négresse (1800).” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, January 1, 1970. http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring04/286-slavery-is-a-woman-race-gender-and-visuality-in-marie-benoists-portrait-dune-negresse-1800.
Waller, Susan, and Susan Waller. “Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine.” Smarthistory, September 26, 2018. https://smarthistory.org/benoist-portrait/.


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Art in Revolution: Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Copyright © 2022 by Jingyue Zhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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