When you enter Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes the central Rotonda atrium and salon Carpeaux behind it are the first thing you see. It’s all symmetrical here, old stuff to the right; new to the left.
After my jaunt through the right side (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes — 1: salles XVe–XVIIIe, & salle Rubens), I span through this. The Rotunda is for sculpture, the salon for painting, and both almost exclusively for Valenciennes’ Own Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
Never heard of him either. But! If you’ve been in the Napoleon III apartments in the Louvre, and I have, then you’re in the right era, and probably seen some of his works there too. And if you’ve seen the Fontaine de l’Observatoire in Paris’ 6e arrondissement Jardin du Luxembourg, you’ve seen his work.
Of which, the busts here of La Négresse and Le Chinois are two of the quartet who make up the monumental fountain. I was considering blogging the former separately, but I gotta keep things under control here, so: the fountain is also known as Fontaine des Quatre-Parties-du-Monde, which is a theme since the Baroque of four individuals representing Asia, Europe, Africa, and America—though often it seems to me that quartet is Asia, Persia, Africa, and the New World—usually holding up something large and heavy, either a white man, or something signifying the unifying force of science, reason, European stuff.
This work is from 1874, barely preceding the Scramble for Africa, New Imperialism, the Great Game in Central Asia, and the woman of La Négresse is bound with rope. (In a surprising verisimilitude of a Takate Kote, with one breast pulled bare. It’s very Japanese shibari porn.) Representing Africa as a bound wild slave isn’t outside what I’ve seen in art from the 17th to 20th centuries. A bust of a woman though, is the first I can recall.
Presumption led me astray. Another name for this bust is Pourquoi naître esclave! (Variously punctuated on the base inscription as Pourquoi! naître esclave! or Pourquoi naître esclave? and so on), which can be translated as “Why? Born a slave” and refers to both France’s history of slavery (abolished in its occupied colonies 1848) and the United States’ Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, three years before Carpeaux began work on the fountain.
It’s still a difficult portrait to look at, despite her strong, defiant, loathing gaze. Comparing with the fountain itself helps to reframe though obviously not erase what was going on at the time. And on that, at the opposite end of the long plinth with a small model of the quartet in the middle is the figure representing Asia: Le Chinois. He has a queue. In the fountain, he’s a woman, still with the queue. Well disconcerting. Carpeaux, do you understand hair?
One of the only non-Carpeaux sculptures is Scipione Tadolini’s orientalist piece, L’Esclave. Behind that are Carpeaux’s paintings, his interpretation of Rubens’ Le martyre de saint-Etienne, the highly proto-expressionist Deux études d’une jeune Transtévérine at a time the rest of France was going mad for impressionism, the Jeunes gens dansant la Tarentelle just for dancing, and then …
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes finishes in the XVIIIe-XXe salles & L’exposition temporaire.