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Black Models Orsay

Black Models: New exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay

The Orsay Museum’s “Black Models” exhibition explores colored models in painting and photography from Géricault to Matisse. Since March 26th, 2019, the exhibit has explored Western artists’ representations of black models, considering historical context and artistic trends.

Orientalism, for example, was the imitation or idealized representation of harems – scenes from the eastern cities, which were very popular in the 19th century in Europe. The exhibit actively focused attention on black characters, often portrayed as servants in harem paintings.

We took a closer look at well-known paintings with black models to pique our own curiosity on the subject, paintings that sit in Orsay or the Louvre and that you can go see anytime.

Portrait of a Negress

Marie-Guillemine Benoist displayed her Portrait of a Negress in 1800 in Paris, at a time when slavery was still at play despite being officially abolished. During that time, it was uncommon for a female artist to depict a black person, making the portrait unique.


Olympia, the famously scandalous painting by impressionist painter Manet, features a black maid holding out a bunch of flowers to a prostitute. France definitively abolished slavery a bit more than a decade before Manet painted his piece. At the time, maintaining the social hierarchy made the presence of a “free” black woman in a painting non-shocking.

Black model Orsay

Execution without Judgement under the Moorish Kings of Granada

In 1870, in line with the Orientalism trend, Regnault’s Execution without Judgement under the Moorish Kings of Granada was met with excitement and fascination by the french author Théophile Gautier. The painting’s bloody scene foreshadowed the painter’s own violent end, which occurred shortly after completing it. One could view the painting as one of the few that features Arabs in Western art.

Snake Charmer

Douanier Rousseau’s Snake Charmer illustrates a European myth with an exotic twist; Rousseau shows off  her “savage” beauty as a dark Eve and it is said to be the female version of Orpheus enchanting both the snake and the viewers with her flute.

The Snake Charmer

The Black Models exhibition in Musée d’Orsay will feature Henri Matisse’s work amongst others. The fauvist painter, renowned for his love of African masks and Inuit statues, frequently traveled to northern Africa.

Book a Private Tour of Orsay Museum with our professional guides to explore its history, beauty, secrets and more!

Article written by Clémence

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