‘Posing Modernity’ exhibit unveils hidden figures of the fine art world

NADINE MATTHEWS | 2/7/2019, 3:40 p.m.
It was just two years ago that moviegoers across the United States were uniquely delighted to see a film called ...
Edouard Manet's La Nagresse

Nor was the mainstream art world drawing connections between this evolution in late 19th century art with modes of rendering the Black female figure in 20th century fine art by people such as Romare Bearden, Charles Alston and Mickalene Thomas.

It became Murrell’s mission—and her 2014 Ph.D. dissertation thesis at Columbia University—to find out about Laure. This led her to uncovering not just Laure’s role in Manet’s art discipline but the role of other Black women models in the development of Modern Art. Her search also brought great insight about late 19th century French society itself, which saw Black writers, poets, actresses and the like socially interacting with people like Manet.

Many of these Blacks had recently immigrated, changing the complexion, if you will, of Parisian society. Laure herself lived about 10 blocks form Manet’s studio. She and other Black women like her were very much a part of Parisian everyday life by the 1860s. Said Murrell, “Manet is presenting Laure to us as emblematic of a racial situation that existed in 1860s Paris just 14 years after the final French abolition and territorial surrender.”

Manet’s contemporaries who immediately followed his example include the likes of Jean Eugène-Leyen and Frédéric Bazille, who both used Black models in works such as The Childlike Kiss (1865) and Young Woman With Peonies, (1870) respectively. One model is presented as a nanny in the former and a small-time entrepreneur in the latter.

Laure is also in Manet’s Children in the Tuileries and, most significantly, in La Négresse. The art world has historically dismissed it as merely a study for Olympia but Murrell, who has been pushing to have it renamed Portrait of Laure, sees things differently. It is a typical portrait. “The artist himself,” Murrell said during her Art Students League presentation, “tells us who she was. We should refer to her as such.”