Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France
by Robin Mitchell, 2020, University of Georgia Press
Review by Natasha Shoory

Gustave Courbet’s visual allegory of life as an artist in mid-nineteenth-century France—L’Atelier du peintre (The Artist’s Studio, 1855)—depicts figures in three groups: laypeople on the left, Parisian elites on the right, and the artist himself in the centre, hovering between the two. On the far right reading a book is Baudelaire; next to him was the figure of Jeanne Duval, whom he called his ‘Vénus Noire’. Baudelaire told Courbet to paint over her, and now all that remains is the ghost of her figure; her image peeking through the paint as time passes. In this way, both in paint and in scholarship, she has become newly visible. This visual source, one of the many drawn upon in Robin Mitchell’s Vénus Noire, offers a poignant metaphor for the figure of Jeanne Duval, and other black women like her, throughout history. Her image, first constructed and then erased, by a white man, becomes a symbol of the presence of black women in post-revolutionary France: ‘These women were not supposed to be there. Yet they were’ declares Mitchell in the introduction (p.17).

Despite the small number of black women living on the French mainland, as Mitchell points out, a disproportionate amount of attention was aimed at their bodies. These bodies were gazed and gawked at, desired and detested, dissected and distorted, collected and consumed, in both private and public spaces, in the flesh and through visual and textual representations, by white men and women. Mitchell’s work focuses on three women living in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, and how they were absorbed into nineteenth-century French culture and identity: Charlotte Catherine Benezet Ourika (circa 1781-1799), Sarah Baartmann (1770s-1815), and Jeanne Duval (circa 1820 – circa 1862). Through connecting the cultural absorption of these women by white Frenchmen and –women, Mitchell presents a compelling case for how they, through their bodies, gave rise to discussions concerning ‘Frenchness’ which helped to shape France’s post-revolutionary national identity. Mitchell further emphasises the connection between race and gender, and how they are utilised as tools by both sexes: the black female body allowed white Frenchwomen to discuss race and gender, and white Frenchmen to discuss white women, black women, and black men, ‘layering many social and political tensions onto one body’ (p.4).

Mitchell’s study is contextualised within not only the ever-changing political climate of post-revolutionary France, but also in the wake of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, which led to the first black sovereign state. An unprecedented event (no modern European power had been so absolutely defeated by a black population), the loss of Haiti (formerly Saint-Domingue) followed a series of imperial losses for France that started with territories in Canada and India in the 1760s. For a reader unfamiliar with this period, there is a danger of gaining an over-simplified understanding of what are hugely complex political events, but indeed Mitchell necessarily can only deal with them partially in order to not detract from her focus. As France grappled with issues of citizenship and national identity spawned by the Revolution, the loss of Haiti and the collapse of Napoleon’s Empire further threatened its national image and self-perception. Tied up in this identity as an imperial power were notions of white superiority, and masculine mastery and virility. As Mitchell shows, the black female body became the antidote, allowing Frenchness to be redefined in polarity to Otherness. This was perhaps most blatant through the figure of Sarah Baartmann, who was put on display and violated in both life and death. Whilst alive she toured as the “Hottentot Venus”, and in death, Georges Léopold Cuvier, who had been appointed surgeon general by Napoleon in 1812, made a plaster cast of her body, dissected her body, and (horrifically) pickled her brain and genitals in jars as specimens. Whilst her preserved body parts and skeleton were repatriated to South Africa in 2001 so she could receive a proper burial, the cast remains in the collection of the Musée de l’homme in Paris.

In the case of Ourika, she was purchased by the Chevalier du Boufflers from Senegal and gifted to the Beauvau family – a rather common practice amongst aristocrats. She was treated relatively well—educated, clothed and loved almost akin to an aristocratic white Frenchwoman—although she retained the status of a “house pet”. The consumption of her body took place long after her short life was over. What became known as “Ourika Mania” was sparked by the publication of the novel Ourika (1824) by Claire Durfort, Duchesse de Duras. Her body and indeed persona could be worn through fashion à la Ourika (or à l’Ourika), her ‘colours’ were light chocolate and shades of blue, orange, and red; there were ‘Ourika’ bonnets, dresses, perfume and hairstyles. Further to the novel, she could be consumed through at least four plays. She could even be eaten through ‘Ourika’ biscuits and meats. Her body was consumed not only culturally, but literally. Mitchell surmises: ‘the myriad Ourika-inspired consumables enabled the French to cut Ourika into pieces and avoid dealing with her as a full person. Ourika Mania thus represented a violent process in which the black female body moved from spectacles to cannibalization and dis(re)memberment.’ (p.103).

An important distinction is made in the structure of Mitchell’s work, as in the opening chapters Mitchell offers the biographies of these women’s lives, before moving on to their fictional appropriation. However, this distinction is quickly blurred as Mitchell highlights that evidence of their lives is scant and fragmentary, and nothing exists of their own voices: ‘the people who had power saw these women merely as objects, and that is how they survive today. There are no extant documents that allow them to speak, to tell their own stories.’ (p.16). Methodologically, her willingness to admit and confront the absences in the historical record, and the reasons for these absences is arresting. There is one word recorded to have been said by Baartmann, “No”, which she said when Cuvier asked to look under her apron – a request which was brutally denied her in death. In the case of Jeanne Duval, best known as the common-law wife of Charles Baudelaire, even today she is often used in order to construct him. Although she was companion to one of the most important writers in French history, there is virtually no record of her life outside of Baudelaire, and those extant sources are formed by other white men. Indeed, evidence of Duval’s physical appearance is also conflicting, as visual and written depictions of her body place her at opposing poles – dark-skinned or light-skinned, thin or fat, flat-chested or busty. Her body, and by extension her life, becomes a fantastical description. The history of these women thus is the history of how white Frenchmen and women have looked at and imagined black women. The words attributed to them are by ventriloquists of sorts – Claire Durfort for Ourika, Charles-Joseph Auguste Colnet du Ravel and his letters ‘by’ Baartmann, and Baudelaire and his circle for Duval.

Mitchell’s research is rigorous and presented in a riveting way. Indeed, Vénus Noire is essential reading for any historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, as well as history enthusiasts. Art and cultural historians will enjoy her analysis of a wide range of visual and textual sources, and indeed political historians should consider her analysis of the post-revolutionary development of French national identity. For the historian of collecting, not only does Vénus Noireprovide greater depth and complexity for cultural and social context, but indeed the connection is made even stronger through the fact that these women’s bodies were collected and consumed in various ways in life and death. In the Preface, Mitchell recalls an anecdote of visiting the plaster cast of Sarah Baartmann in Paris as a graduate student, promising her in tears, “I’ll try not to screw this up.” (p. xiv) Here and throughout the study, Mitchell invites the reader to connect personally with people who have historically been viewed only as objects. This approach is not only refreshing but captivating, and one can hope this compelling study encourages further research into the area.

Book Information:

Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

by Robin Mitchell, 2020. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 208 pp., $34.95 (paperback) $99.95 (hardback). ISBN 9780830354316 (paperback) 9780830354323 (hardback).

Leave a Reply

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