A Bold New Show at the Met Explores A Single Sculpture
The exhibition probes the paradoxes of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s “Why Born Enslaved!,” the most famous depiction of a Black woman in 19th-century art
One of the most famous 19th-century depictions of a Black enslaved woman is Why Born Enslaved!, a bust carved by French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in 1873. Rendered in white marble, the sculpture portrays a woman tied up with ropes, straining against her confinement. She twists over one shoulder, fixing the viewer with a defiant gaze.
The work is an iconic instance of Black representation in the arts. Created soon after emancipation in America and 20 years after the second abolishment of slavery in France, the bust is inscribed with an abolitionist message: “Pourquoi Naitre Esclave!” (in English, “Why born enslaved!”). But the ethics of the sculpture are fraught, as a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains. Its history is entwined with 19th-century European racism, French colonial violence on the African continent and the virtue-signaling art-collecting habits of the European elite.
On view through March 5, 2023, “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast” attempts to untangle these historical threads. With Why Born Enslaved! as its centerpiece, the exhibition places the sculpture in conversation with 35 works, both 19th-century depictions of Black figures as well as a couple contemporary pieces. It’s also the first in the museum’s 150-year history to “examine Western sculpture in relation to the histories of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and empire,” per a museum statement.
Those unable to visit the exhibition in person can watch a video of co-curator and poet Wendy S. Walters reciting her poem inspired by Carpeaux’s sculpture or listen to an audio guide to the show.
Co-curators Walters and art historian Elyse Nelson encourage audiences to think deeply about the sculpture’s many ambiguous loose ends. For one, scholars don’t know exactly who the work depicts. A Black woman modeled for Carpeaux in 1868, and he took pains to record the particulars of her likeness in sketches and clay models—but neglected to record her name.
Scholars suspect that the model might have been Louise Kuling, a free woman who came to France from Virginia. But evidence for this identification is shaky, and the curators are reluctant to speculate much further, reports Alex Greenberger for ARTNews.
Other historical details are better-established. A popular sculptor in his day, Carpeaux (1827-1875) first conceived Why Born Enslaved! as a full-length sculpture for a planned fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, as art critic Holland Cotter writes in the New York Times. This figure, known for years by the title Négresse, was designed to be an allegorical representation of the continent of Africa. Négresse and three other female figures—meant to typify the American, Asian and European continents—would decorate the fountain in a celebration of French imperialism, as Walters tells Kaitlyn Greenidge of Harper’s Bazaar.
Tight on cash and short on materials thanks to the ongoing Franco-Prussian war, Carpeaux produced several bust-sized and smaller versions of his African allegory sculpture to sell on the market. Wealthy European collectors were eager to buy: the French Emperor Napoleon III, who helmed brutal colonial campaigns in several regions of West Africa, reportedly liked the sculpture so much that he purchased a copy for his wife, per the Times.
In other words, this exhibition argues, Why Born Enslaved! helped propagate a romanticized—and even eroticized—idea of enslavement, carrying on a longstanding tradition within Western art of depicting Black people in subjugated positions. For wealthy European elites, Carpeaux’s bust transformed into a “politically expedient emblem, one that expressed sympathy for the downtrodden, but also portrayed the downtrodden as decisively down,” writes Cotter in the Times. Writing in an online essay, Sarah E. Lawrence, curator in charge of European sculpture and decorative arts, and Nelson describe the resulting effect as a “disturbing fantasy of aestheticized bondage.”
“Many works of art carry an abolitionist message, but nonetheless contribute to notions of racial inequality,” Nelson tells ARTNews. Walters adds that sort of contradiction is typical in Western art. "I think there’s still a lot of confusion around that issue, and I really hope that visitors come to see that and recognize it,” she says.
Marble versions of this sculpture were thought to be lost to time until one such copy was rediscovered in 2018, per ARTNews. The Met acquired this work in 2019. As Lawrence explains in the statement, museum staff began debating how to interpret the object as soon as it arrived: “Having acquired this sculpture, we have assumed responsibility for its ethical display,” she notes. “Can we be other than complicit in the aestheticization of slavery?”
The resulting exhibition displays Why Born Enslaved! alongside other examples of 19th-century abolitionist art. These include Forever Free, a sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, a Black and Indigenous American woman who forged a successful career as an expatriate sculptor in 19th-century Europe. Two contemporary pieces by artists Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley also respond directly to Why Born Enslaved!.
In conversation with Harper’s Bazaar, Walters shares her hope that the intimate show about a single sculpture will inspire viewers to think long and hard about the power dynamics at play in abolitionist art.
“When you look at the work, it’s clear that he [Carpeaux] was very moved by the subject, but his expression or his representation is not as morally clear,” the poet adds. “The Met is really trying to engage with a piece that doesn’t have a completely clear narrative and be open to decipher that and the challenges that come with that.”