The Black Model at the Crux of Western Culture: Sweeping Exhibition at Musée d’Orsay / by Sam Abelow

Detail, “À vendre, escalves au caire,” Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1873. Photographed by myself, as installed at the Musée d’Orsay.

The “Black Models” show at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris reveals the Western neglect of the archetypal feminine, which accounts for racial and gender subjugation and ultimately a disregard for the planet itself. In this view of the show, we poignantly discover a cultural progression, but also a dire need for further understanding today.

The statement you just read was my remark to a prestigious editor who especially wanted to know how my take benefited from a second viewing — the first being at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery in New York City.

Undoubtedly, the Musée d’Orsay’s collection more fully reflected curator Denise Murrell’s stunning unveiling of Manet’s role as artist-prophet, as he fractured the rigid conventions of his time, with specific regard to representation of the black woman. “Olympia,” the infamous Manet painting, had been left out of the first rendition of the exhibit.

Not only that, but dozens of compelling objects were added in Paris — particularly memorable was a suite of stunning busts. These immaculate statues, executed by artists deliberately working in the French Salon, state-sanctioned style, utilize a dark bronze patina to render black men and women, both in stereotyping costumes and in the exacting likenesses of lost models.

A particularly grotesque example of French academy art, which the Orsay’s sprawling collection emphasized.

The Museé d’Orsay’s sprawling collection of 19th century academy art emphasized the tradition of exoticized, colonial representations of black people. These images reveal the way in which only a culture devoid of the values of eros — connected to the body, nature, inclusivity, relatedness, love — could subjugate and dehumanize people based on skin color.

Ultimately, a meditation on this show calls for a profound undressing of Western culture’s lost values of eros, synonymous with the archetypal feminine. Only then do we see that healing our collective wound means not only recognizing the pain of racial subjugation, class oppression and repressive social constructs, but also the recovery of our relationship to nature, earth, body and a basic appreciation of all humanity.

However, there are many intelligent reactions to the show that don’t tend to penetrate down into the unconscious psyche and deal with archetypes. In fact, various conversations prior to my trip to Paris ran the gamut of perspective.

In Conversation

For instance, Omeed Goodarzi, a well-read philosopher and musician living in rural Massachusetts, argued vehemently a broad reaction to Jungian cultural analysis: “When white men harp of the ubiquity of inner experience, human potential — these are the words of colonialists, men who tame savages.” In response, a young woman at the forefront of contemporary Jungian thought, pointed out that this approach is “one of the only psychologies of liberation which points us back down to the soul and the archaic being outside of colonization.”

In conversation with a social worker, I was encouraged to examine the White Western male psyche, and especially to scrutinize the male artist and exotic muse. We discussed the value of examining my role in writing about these topics, and how I can support the voices of marginalized groups that have wrote and talked about these issues previously, rather than risk “mansplaining.”

Over drinks at the Orsay (a spoof-style French café on Lexington Ave., Manhattan) a female graduate student of psychology at Columbia University — very rational and curious — also wanted to hear more about the specific concern of the male artist and the exotic muse. I understood the way in which the artist’s immortality fantasy and inner existential conflict drives him to create, and the muse is his vehicle towards this necessity of production. Importantly, though, the attraction to the exotic muse, in particular, reflects Western man’s loss of soul — the neglected feminine within his own psyche.

For a short time, I considered that an analysis of this problem would be useful; the hope was that shedding light on the pattern could help contemporary artists overcome such tendencies.

But this focus quickly broadened as I saw that the lost soul, projected by the artist, points to a more general loss of eros in Western culture. One of the West’s oldest stories, the allegory of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, expresses a fascination with the exotic woman.[1] The early fascination, seen in the Biblical story, later became a dehumanizing hatred in the European slave trade. Wherever there is projection, there is loss, for all people involved.

What I call a “lack of eros” in Western culture, was described by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as capitalism's schizomania. As explored in Murrell’s historical documentation, the men within such a schizoid culture projected repressed values of body, sexuality and nature onto the black woman. Artist’s such as Manet and Matisse, through increasingly sensitive contact with the individual women, as model and collaborator, as well as a social context of emerging ethnic pluralism in France, played a crucial role in breaking through stubborn social mores.

An art history and philosophy professor, named David Carrier, formerly of Carnegie Mellon University, found a correspondence of my developing thoughts interesting, but noted that this latest approach was far too abstract, almost unrelated to the art exhibit itself. Maybe so, I thought; but it seemed that it was the objects and historical documentation that curator, Denise Murrell hoped would generate conservation and transformation. [2] Was I not following the collective dialogue as deeply as I could?

All of this began to pile up — a stack of material related to this “Black Models” show.

And so I carried all of this baggage to Paris.

In Paris

“Portrait of Madeleine,” (Officially renamed by the Musée d’Orsay in 2019, “Portrait d’une negresse”) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 1800. Photographed by myself, as installed at the Musée d’Orsay.

On the plane flight I reflected on a dream I had in 2016: Three women struggle to hold-up and carry a black woman who is severely wounded. Then I remembered how the “Portrait of Madeleine,” by Benoist (a rare Salon style painting of a black model, by a French woman) had moved me to tears when I first read Murrell’s book. I had cried for the suffering of black people and for the pain of women in history; I cried for the ignorance of the Western, schizoid man, who had neglected his own inner feminine so severely, and acted viciously towards others, by way of an antagonism towards a denied part of himself. I cried for the wounded woman, the feminine in us all, the one who must be redeemed — socially, politically, environmentally and individually.

“Sam viewing the black muse,” photograph by Johannes Böckmann, at the Musée d’Orsay

It was this stunning portrait that was the first object displayed in the Orsay’s “Black Models” galleries. I had come with a group, which included an American artist who was in residence, named Devon and his girlfriend Amy, an emerging artist in her own right. My companions stood baffled, not understanding why I might stare, unmoving for so long, at this realistic portrait. They couldn’t see the baggage I carried with me.

Detail, “La Toilette,” by Frédéric Bazille, 1869. Photographed by myself, as installed at the Wallach Gallery.

Detail, “Young Woman with Peonies,” Bazille. Photograph via Google Images.

Johannes, a philosophy and theology student from Germany could instantly understand much of the 19th Century work — boasted by the institution’s collection — as a sort of “cultural propaganda.” He also had an inherent distaste for the bizarrely schizoid painting, “La Toilette,” by Bazille. Johannes could also perceive the shift from stark stereotype, to a modern individuality, and autonomy represented in “Young Woman with Peonies,” which the young artist painted after his encounter with Manet.

“Olympia,” by Édouard Manet, 1863. Photographed by myself, as installed at the Musée d’Orsay.

Detail, “Le baiser enfantin,” by Jacques-Eugene Feyen, 1865. Photographed by myself, as installed at the Musée d’Orsay.

It was Manet which the exhibit and book centered upon. Krissy sat stunned before this numinous object — “Olympia” — eager to know more about the historical context. It was featured prominently, as vital as the day Manet painted it, as the intensity of his thought and the complexity of his vision is still being uncovered today.

The last glimmers of academic painting in the exhibition appeared to Krissy matter-of-factly, with a direct curiosity that can only be present without an ideological bent harboring the intellect. In, “Le baiser enfantin,” by Feyen, Amy saw the baby’s spoiled look, the black nanny’s genuine smile, the statue-esque detachment of the white mother, and the rich quality of the paint glimmering on the surface.

Devon and I made a rendezvous at the culmination of the show, into the contemporary era. We witnessed Matisse and Picasso’s fascination with the “primitive,” and the peculiar nuances and complexities of blackness in early modernity — where glimmers of freedom and mobility mixed with distasteful entertainment and projection-laden fascinations.

That day, I saw extraordinary artifacts which demonstrated a progression from cruel stereotype, to increasing appreciation of the individual woman. Murrell’s text shows how central Baudelaire’s concept of what the art of modernity would be — to represent daily life, which was becoming multicultural — was to this narrative.

A poet and intellectual central to the progression of modernity, Baudelaire was crucially involved in a long-term relationship with a mixed-race woman. His concept of modern art influenced both Manet and Matisse, both of whom furthered the artistic representation of the black woman in European culture. All of this nuance adds complexity to the function of the muse in the artist’s obsessional need for production, as it was his fascination that led to increased contact, and his peculiar sensitivity helped to push along a larger cultural progression.

And yet, so present in my mind, has been a larger reading of this Western culture. Extending out from early modernism through today, I saw the story of our collective psyche: The Western man projected his lost inner feminine onto the black woman; he mistreated her; slowly, with the help of certain artists, he began to see her more respectfully, more fully; now we enjoy a more multicultural society; but still, that dark feminine remains neglected — she is nascent in the unconscious, a women are still mistreated by men lacking in developed eros.

Still today, the Western man lives by the myth of the “bottom line,” of “quarterly growth,” of conquering and building; the lost dark feminine calls for mutual respect, conservation of the environment, and the appreciation of life — not dollars, not winning.

I carried all of this around with me in Paris, and I carry it back to the States today, hoping that you may pose the question to yourself — where is the lost feminine in me and my world?

Further reading

“Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” Denise Murrell:

Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development,” Otto Rank:

“The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln: An Ancient Image for Our Present Time,” on the “Speaking of Jung Podcast”:

“The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype.” Erich Neumann":

“An Unconscious Subject of Deleuze and Guatarri,” Inna Semetsky:

“Jung, Deleuze and the Problematic Whole,” Roderick Main, David Henderson, and Christian McMillan:


1: Projection of unconscious contents can go various ways. For example, the Greeks idealized the Ethiopians as “favored by the gods.” No doubt, however, that that the singular image of blackness, and particular of the black woman, for the Colonial/european psyche was that of the “lesser,” or exoticized “other,” a cruel and dehumanizing projective scenario. This subjugation was as much an oppression of a class of people, as it was a fear of the archetypal feminine within the Western man -- the consequences of which are still unknowable, as they are still un-integrated today.

2: “Posing Modernity - Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery”