I’ve got the art degree, I know all about the male gaze, but here’s something I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not really considered before.
How black women were whitewashed by art
All it takes is a few minutes of searching ‘Queen of Sheba painting’ on Google Images to see a litany of reclining, exoticised white women glancing languorously either at the viewer or King Solomon. There were once some depictions of the Queen of Sheba as dark-skinned, but the Renaissance saw her whitewashing and sexualisation on a grand scale. For Ohajuru it jars with earlier depictions of her, such as that seen at the altarpiece of Klosterneuburg in Austria, which portrays her visiting the king next to an image of the Adoration of the Magi. “She was used as a prefiguration, a foreteller, a prophesiser, that a king would visit the baby Jesus, just as a queen visited Solomon.” By the 18th Century she is no longer a queen meeting a king to have a healthy debate – she is an idolatrous seductress.
Of blackness and ‘beauty’
Unlike his predecessor, Bazille does not capture a black woman as a servant to a naked, white prostitute as Manet does in his famous Olympia painting, but rather as a human being who exists outside of deference to a white woman. Peonies, symbols of riches, honor, and prosperity, surround her. She extends one flower out toward the frame as if a potential patron has approached her station. Like Manet’s black model Laure, she wears a headscarf and white outfit, but this peony-possessing woman’s features are much more defined. One cannot lose the connection of her curved lips from top to bottom, or the shape of her eyebrows. In contrast, Olympia, which many art historians call a modernist update to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534), has inspired much study of Victorine Meurent, the naked white model who is staring directly at the spectator, instead of her servant Laure, whose history is sparsely documented. Her last name is not on record. It is another example of how a black model’s humanity is not given the same recognition as that of her white female counterpart.