Making Whiteness: Art, Luxury, and Race in Eighteenth-Century France

Marika Takanishi Knowles

Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion, Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” (1787), is widely known as an example of the fraught representation of enslaved persons during the eighteenth century. In its effort to promote the abolition of slavery through the design of a fashionable accessory, the medallion fails to imagine the enslaved individual other than kneeling and in chains.[1] What is less known is that Sèvres, the French royal porcelain manufactory, also produced its own, French-language version of the medallion. Made in the manufactory’s signature matte biscuit finish, this second version included the text: “Ne suis-je pas un homme? Un frère?”[2] On Wedgwood’s medallions, the enslaved figure was often painted in black or brown glaze.[3] The intended color of the figure on the Sèvres medallion is unknown, but biscuit porcelain was by its nature unglazed, an aesthetic choice that showed off the whiteness of the clay or “paste” (pâte).[4] Whether the figure would have been left white, like other biscuit objects and biscuit medallions, is difficult to know. In early 1789, after only a few medallions had been cast, a member of the Comte d’Angiviller’s staff wrote to the manufacturer to stop production. “Without a doubt the motif is good,” the deputy wrote, “it is dictated by humanity, but such medallions brought to the colonies could be seen by the enslaved and there excite movement.”[5]

If indeed intended to have been left unglazed, the figure would have represented an intriguing example of the complexity of whiteness in eighteenth-century France. On the one hand, whiteness represented an achievement of craft­­­––in this case, the artisanal recipe for white clay, the hard-won result of an effort to emulate Asian luxury commodities. On the other hand, over the course of the eighteenth century, whiteness, in the form of skin colored white, had been claimed as the exclusive possession of metropolitan, elite Frenchness in the form of a symbolic racial avatar, the noble white woman. In this context, an enslaved body, crafted to be white, would have troubled in the metropole as well as the colonies.

The study of whiteness in eighteenth-century French art and material culture is still in its early phases, although important contributions have been made.[6] Developed over the past thirty years, scholarship on whiteness in literary and cultural studies and sociology focuses primarily on American and British culture. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) was a key early intervention in the field, drawing attention to the way that “Africanism” as a form of “darkness” abides at the heart of nineteenth-century American literature, even when a novel features no Black characters. In a formulation that remains essential to the accounts that follow, Morrison posits whiteness and Blackness as intertwined entities produced by the dominant discourse as a means of sustaining and performing the difference and the superiority of whiteness.[7] This interdependency was also a point developed in an early critical discussion of race in twentieth-century France, Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (1952), in which Fanon elaborates the performativity, but also the inescapability of the positions of “homme blanc, femme blanche” and “homme noir, femme noire” in French society.[8]

Richard Dyer’s White (1997), based on a corpus of twentieth-century American cinema, represents what is arguably the first effort at the critical description of whiteness in visual representation.[9] The early 2000s saw efforts by David Bindman (2002), Angela Rosenthal (2004), and Martin Berger (2005) to consider the construction of whiteness in eighteenth-century Britain and America.[10] Surprisingly, given the importance of Fanon’s work as well as the ample historical scholarship on the construction of race and gender in Old Regime France, the consideration of these issues in eighteenth-century French art has been slower to develop.[11] Yet it has picked up speed in the last decade, with crucial publications by Mechthild Fend (2015, 2017) and Anne Lafont (2017, 2019).[12] For the most part, these accounts are concerned with the representation and the construction of race in the context of the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons. A very recent article, by Chi-ming Yang (2021), has drawn attention to the trade in global luxury commodities, particularly Asian imports, as productive of another related context in which whiteness was performed.[13]

In eighteenth-century European visual art, a major locale for the construction of whiteness is the female portrait.[14] Angela Rosenthal made this observation early on in relation to British portraiture with her striking argument that the representation of white garments and white skin could function as an “erasure of corporality, a chromatic void and a canceling out of bodily existence.”[15] In recent work, both Lafont and Fend have separately approached the eighteenth-century French female portrait and the depiction of skin color. As Lafont shows, the whiteness of female skin was produced through different kinds of paint: the paint of cosmetics used to whiten the face, and painted portraits in which elite French women were portrayed with Black servants. These portraits perform both racial difference and a hierarchy of race through the juxtaposition of a woman painted white, the “subject” of the picture, and a Black servant, an “accessory” to the subject, assigned to the shadows, below or slightly behind the female figure.[16] Fend has drawn attention to the way that attributing a color to skin was itself an eighteenth-century development. Previously, artists and scientists referred to the appearance of the visible surface of the body as “complexion” or “carnation.”[17]

During the eighteenth century, developments in material culture and artisanal technologies encouraged an alliance between whiteness and the skin color of the dominant, enslaving class. Transitioning from a “society of scarcity” to a “consumer society” encouraged more frequent changes of dress, particularly of woven linen undergarments (linge).[18] Linens were white, or at least were intended to be white, and took the form of the white handkerchief around the neck, the white cuffs beneath the jacket, the white chemise, the white petticoat. A person who wished to be perceived as clean and neat changed their linens regularly; the cleansing of the body itself was optional.[19] This was true even in French colonial Louisiana, where a half-French, half-Indian trader (voyageur) insisted in his contract that his linens be laundered upon his arrival in New Orleans (there was no clause regarding bathing).[20] In Paris, the elite sent their linens to be bleached in Holland, fearing the hack efforts of Parisian laundresses, who beat shirts into shreds in the dirty water on the banks of the Seine.[21]

In eighteenth-century France, it was widely believed that Greek and Roman sculptures were white, rather than polychromed.[22] Classical sculpture became a particularly vital locale of whiteness as the century progressed, allowing white to emerge as the color of reason, clarity, and enlightenment.[23] Earlier in the century, however, it was imported Asian porcelain that played a dominant role in the fetishization of the color. Chinese and Japanese porcelain began to appear in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As demand grew in the early eighteenth century, European potters sought to produce their own equivalents for Asian ceramics. By the early eighteenth century, the French had discovered a finicky recipe for white clay, which contained both chalk and ground glass “frit.” This soft-paste porcelain (porcelaine tendre) was difficult to manipulate and sensitive to heat. Glossy white tin and lead glazes were used to add brilliance to the finished product, which was a technique long employed by makers of faience, who layered white glazes over reddish clay. Nevertheless, the omission of glaze in the case of biscuit figurines may have been intended to broadcast mastery of substantive whiteness (whiteness that was no longer “skin”- or “glaze”-deep).

Fig. 1. Chantilly Manufactory, Magot, 1740. Tin-glazed soft-paste porcelain, 25.5 x 22.6 x 12.3 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 65.1987. Photograph © 2022 The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As Adrienne Childs has shown, porcelain figurines, widely produced by both French and German manufactories, often represented “subject peoples of the state,” “misfits, laborers, and peasants,” as well as racialized others.[24] In Saxony, Meissen excelled in numerous genres, including “Blackamoor” figures. Interestingly, eighteenth-century French manufactories fabricated very few “Blackamoors” and favored, instead, “pagods” and “magots.” These generic Asian figures, also made by Meissen, featured moving parts (bobbing heads and hands), big bellies, and comic, “grotesque” expressions (Fig. 1).[25] The manufactories at Chantilly and Mennecy-Villeroy, two pioneers in soft-paste, tin-glazed porcelain, offered numerous versions of “pagods” and “magots,” which could be designed to hold incense, potpourris, or flowers.[26] These figures were white; in sets of figurines representing the “four continents,” no effort was made to distinguish between the color of the figurines representing Europe and Asia. Yet there was no question that the fad for “magots” both infantilized and objectified Asian bodies by fostering a discourse of material excess, comic bodily deformity, and servility. Here, as Yang has argued, the use of artisanal techniques to produce whiteness interacted in complex ways with understandings of race and difference.[27] A much-fetishized commodity, the preciousness and desirability of porcelain was intimately tied to its difficult-to-attain whiteness. This meant that through porcelain, whiteness entered the European imagination as a trade secret that belonged to Asia, not Europe. Whiteness as a crafted, luxury commodity from Asia came to co-exist alongside whiteness as the “natural” color of European skin. In suggesting that Asian porcelain represented a kind of “ornamental whiteness,” Yang draws on Anne Cheng’s Ornamentalism, in which Cheng argues that theories of race need to be recast through the history of objects, “through fabrics, ornaments, and ‘skins’ that have never enjoyed the fantasy of organicity.”[28] Linking racialized personhood and objecthood in provocative ways, Cheng’s account suggests a new way to approach the construction of race in eighteenth-century France.

Further work remains in order to contextualize whiteness within the emergence of France as a consumer society boasting a prestigious marketplace for luxury goods. Alongside the whiteness of porcelain, Blackness also had a luxury avatar in the form of Japanese lacquer, another popular import that Europeans sought to imitate.[29] The relationship between ornament, whiteness, and personhood in Rococo decorative art remains to be fully explored.[30] In addition to the question of the personhood of the “pagods,” monkeys, and commedia dell’arte characters that proliferate in arabesques and as porcelain figurines, there is the intriguing “sea of whiteness” in which these ornamental motifs float, both on the walls and on paper.[31] The way that these white grounds thematize blankness and absence, in relationship to contemporary theories of whiteness as both absence, death, and the “invisible norm,” could be fruitfully explored.[32] In the realm of material culture and its relationship to the history of art, there is also much work to be done on eighteenth-century French Illinois and Louisiana, a tantalizing tableau of which is presented in Sophie White’s outstanding work.[33] The presence of French, Indians, and Africans in the context of a “frontier exchange economy” is likely to have produced many instances in which race, color, and material objects intertwined in unexpected ways. As studies of attitudes towards creolization have suggested, the colonies were problematic locales for the quest after whiteness.[34] If whiteness could “degenerate” in the colonial context, then it was indeed a technique or a practice, rather than an essence.

My original impetus for writing this note came when I was revisiting Ingres’s Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière (1805) in the Louvre, along with my colleague and one of the editors of this Journal18 issue, Stephanie O’Rourke. I had recently published an article on this painting, as well as other early nineteenth-century portraits of pale, winsome adolescent women, whose frail figures were drawn in neo-Grecque contours.[35] In that essay, I focused on the crispness of the lines separating figure and ground, as well as the color palette of white dress against blue ground, an echo of the Borghese dancers as they trickled down into consumer culture through Wedgwood ceramics. I argued that this style of portraiture created a plastic equivalent for the young virgin whose chastity was performed through the hardness of the line, a barrier through which no touch could pass. The literature on whiteness has given me further clues to what is at stake in these portraits of women in white dresses, which lie at the end of the long eighteenth century. These women are white because they are “colorless,” spotless in the sense of having no salacious stories to tell and no stories told about them, no stains to mar their dresses or their chastity—untouched, unmarked. But they also very much perform the relationship between whiteness and the madeness of luxury commodities.

In returning to the waxy-skinned Mademoiselle Rivière wrapped in a swansdown stole, I am struck by Lafont’s description of the “quest for whiteness” and the “conquest” of Blackness in terms of the desire to “stabilize” the “contours of species forming human variety.”[36] If whiteness was a distant ideal to be “quested” after, Blackness was a “moving” entity that threatened the “stability of the whiteness of Europeans.”[37] Yet the whiteness of Mademoiselle Rivière was also a moving target of sorts, a horizon set by market-driven technical innovations that made material instantiations of whiteness possible, from the whiteness of paint and fabrics (the gauzy white dresses of this period were often described as linge worn as outerwear) to Wedgwood’s Populuxe version of the Borghese dancers on a saltcellar. It is out of these two movements–––towards a hierarchy of skin colors and towards the artisanal techniques enabling mass production of white objects–––that whiteness is made in eighteenth-century French art and material culture.

Marika Takanishi Knowles is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland


[1] Mary Guyatt, “The Wedgwood Slave Medallion: Values in Eighteenth-Century Design,” Journal of Design History 13, 2 (2000): 93-105.

[2] Marcelle Brunet and Tamara Préaud, Sèvres: des origines à nos jours (Paris: Société Française du Livre, 1978), 234.

[3] There are some exceptions.

[4] An extant version at the Musée National Adrien Dubouché in Limoges is painted (ADL1342), but this could be a later alteration. The 1987 re-edition of the medallion by Sèvres was white.

[5] Letter of 8 April 1789, cited in Brunet and Préaud, Sèvres, 234. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

[6] Although there is a danger, widely acknowledged, that this kind of study will “re-center” whiteness, it has been pointed out, by critics like bell hooks, that to leave whiteness unstudied is to reaffirm that whiteness is the unspoken norm. bell hooks, “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Ruth Frankenberg, ed., Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 165-79, here 169. For an introduction to the sociological work on whiteness, see Steve Garner, Whiteness: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2007).

[7] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992). 

[8] Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (1952; Paris: Éditions Points, 2015).

[9] Richard Dyer, White (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[10] David Bindman: Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century (London: Reaktion, 2002); Angela Rosenthal, “Visceral Culture: Blushing and the Legibility of Whiteness in Eighteenth-Century British Portraiture,” Art History 27, 4 (2004): 563-592; Martin Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). For another recent consideration of whiteness in the American context, see Nika Elder, “In the Flesh: John Singleton Copley’s RoyallPortraits and Whiteness,” Art History 44, 5 (2021): 948-977.

[11] A selection of this literature: Sarga Moussa, ed., L’idée de “race” dans les sciences humaines et la littérature (XVIIIe XIXe siecles) (Paris: Harmattan, 2003); William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans: White Responses to Blacks, 1530-1880 (1980; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); Sue Peabody, ‘There Are No Slaves in France’: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Elsa Dorlin, La matrice de la race: généalogie sexuelle et colonial de la Nation française (2006; Paris: La Découverte, 2009).

[12] Anne Lafont, “How Skin Color Became a Racial Marker: Art Historical Perspectives on Race,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 51, 1 (2017): 89-113; Anne Lafont, L’art et la race: L’Africain (tout) contre l’oeil des Lumières (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2019); Mechthild Fend, Fleshing out surfaces: Skin in French Art and Medicine, 1650-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017); Mechthild Fend, “Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une Négresse and the Visibility of Skin Color,” in Caroline Rosenthal and Dirk Vanderbeke, eds., Probing the Skin: Cultural Representations of Our Contact Zone (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 192-210.

[13] Chi-ming Yang, “Elephantine Chinoiserie and Asian Whiteness: Views on a Pair of Sèvres Vases,” The Journal of the Walters Art Museum 75 (2021), https://journal.thewalters.org/volume/75/essay/elephantine-chinoiserie-and-asian-whiteness-views-on-a-pair-of-sevres-vases/.

[14] In addition to the sources cited above and below, see also Jennifer Palmer, “The Princess Served by Slaves: Making Race Visible through Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century France,” Gender & History 26, 2 (2014): 242-262.

[15] Rosenthal, “Visceral Culture,” 576.

[16] Anne Lafont, “How Skin Color Became a Racial Marker;” Anne Lafont, L’art et la race, 70-72.

[17] Fend, Fleshing out surfaces, 1-14, 143-183.

[18] Daniel Roche, La culture des apparences: une histoire du vêtement XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1989), 150-153.

[19] Catherine Ungerer, “Les valeurs urbaines du propre: Blanchissage et hygiène à Paris au XVIIIe siècle,” Ethnologie française 16, 3 (1986): 295-298.

[20] Sophie White, “‘To Ensure that He Not Give Himself Over to the Indians’: Cleanliness, Frenchification, and Whiteness,” Journal of Early American History 2 (2012): 111-149.

[21] Louis Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, ed. Jean-Claude Bonnet, 2 vols. (Paris: Mercure de France, 1994), I.1086-1088.

[22] See Alicia Caticha’s recent discussion on this topic in “Madame Récamier as Tableau Vivant: Marble and the Classical Ideal in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Apesh*t,” Journal18 (January 2020), https://www.journal18.org/4513.

[23] Anne Lafont, “De Balthazar à Auguste: Figures et personnalités noires dans l’art à l’époque de la traite atlantique,” in Le Modèle noir: De Géricault à Matisse (Paris: Flammarion, in association with the Musée d’Orsay, 2019), 32-46.

[24] Adrienne L. Childs, “Sugar Boxes and Blackamoors: Ornamental Blackness in Early Meissen Porcelain,” in Alden Cavanaugh and Michael Yonan, eds., The Cultural Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century Porcelain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 159-177, here 174.

[25] Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, “The Reign of Magots and Pagods,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 37 (2002): 177-197.

[26] On Chantilly “pagods,” see Geneviève Le Duc, Porcelaine tendre de Chantilly au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Hazan, 1996), 89-99. On Mennecy-Villeroy, see Nicole Duchon, Tendre porcelaine de Mennecy Villeroy (Mennecy: Maury Imprimeur, 2016).

[27] Yang, “Elephantine Chinoiserie,” n.p.

[28] Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” Critical Inquiry 44 (2018): 415-446, here 428. See also Anne Cheng, Ornamentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[29] Kristina Kleutghen, “Imports and Imitations: The Taste for Japanese Lacquer in Eighteenth-Century China and France,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 17, 2 (2017): 175-206.

[30] Katie Scott’s article is one example of the richness that this angle can yield: Katie Scott, “Playing Games with Otherness: Watteau’s Chinese Cabinet at the Château de la Muette,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 66 (2003): 189-248.

[31] “Sea of whiteness” is a phrase discussed to powerful effect in Sarah Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 82, 2 (2007): 149-168, here 157.

[32] On whiteness as a void, death, and immobility, see Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 58-59; and Dyer, White, 41-81.

[33] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). See also Sophie White, “‘Wearing three or four handkerchiefs around his collar, and elsewhere about him’: Slaves’ Constructions of Masculinity and Ethnicity in French Colonial New Orleans,” Gender & History 15, 3 (2003): 528-549.

[34] Yvonne Fabella, “Redeeming the ‘Character of the Creoles’: Whiteness, Gender and Creolization in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue,” Journal of Historical Sociology 23, 1 (2010): 40-72.

[35] Marika Takanishi Knowles, “Time-chaste damsels: Ingres, Nerval, and Sylvie,” RES 73/74 (2020): 140-154.

[36] Lafont, L’art et la race, 49, 50.

[37] Lafont, L’art et la race, 49, 50.


Cite this article as: Marika Takanishi Knowles, “Making Whiteness: Art, Luxury, and Race in Eighteenth-Century France”, Journal18, Issue 13 Race (Spring 2022), https://www.journal18.org/6214.

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