Race: Representation in the French Colonial Empire

In 2019 two projects marked the emergence of a new chapter in the study of race in French art history, one that has only accelerated and become more urgent following the global protests that began in the United States in June 2020. The first was the publication of Anne Lafont’s L’Art et la race, a new history of what she calls the “African presence” in French Enlightenment visuality.[1] The second comprised the sister exhibitions Posing Modernity at the Wallach Gallery in New York City and Le Modèle noir at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.[2] Each project foregrounded histories of race that are often overlooked in the study of French art. Despite their increased importance to art history more broadly, race and critical race theory have only recently come to play a central role in some accounts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French visual and material culture. The formation of the archive has inevitably constrained the visual records available to scholarship. Yet Stephen Best, writing about the visual culture of enslavement, has cautioned against a “fetishization of absence” that redoubles the real exclusions of the historical record.[3] Part of the power of the exhibitions in New York and Paris was simply calling the bluff of this so-called absence: Blackness has always been visible even at the most central sites of French art, and visual culture has played a crucial role in the construction of whiteness and other racial categories, as well as Indigeneity.

Consequently, “representation” in its many valences is central to our inquiry–especially for a country famous for the dramatic expansion of political enfranchisement in the final years of the eighteenth century.[4] But as scholars like Emanuelle Saada and Laurent Dubois have shown, the universalist rhetoric of Enlightenment Republicanism has long been grounded in constructions of racial difference, to say nothing of France’s more explicit denial of enfranchisement within its colonies. “Even as it proposes inclusivity,” Lisa Lowe writes, the form of “liberal universalism” that emerged in the eighteenth century “effects principles of inclusion and exclusion” that run counter to its claims to universality and related values like freedom and legal equality.[5] As two scholars trained in the American academy, by invoking race in the context of French identity we are mindful of present-day cultural tensions concerning laïcité (or secularism) as a condition of French political identity.[6] It is here perhaps that we reach a limit of the term “representation” and its relatively narrow political implications of enfranchisement when considering the role that race has played in the political construction of Frenchness. As the papers collected in this issue make clear, despite universalist assertions by the current French president and others, invented racial categories have always mediated the unequal application of the law both within hexagonal France and in its colonial empire.

Multiple shorter interventions chart some of the many geographies of this topic, with two longer articles going into greater depth on specific subjects. Katherine Calvin’s essay reveals the complex visual and social economies of the Senegalese slave trade. Cabelle Ahn explores how Canadian Indigeneity was framed in the French colonial metropole. Íris Kantor and Milena Natividade da Cruz analyze how mural maps of Africa facilitated the racialization of African peoples in ways that justified their enslavement. Alicia Caticha and Marika Knowles both consider the importance of luxury commodities in representations and constructions of race. Caticha shares her experiences teaching intertwined histories of eighteenth-century race and fashion in the age of TikTok. Knowles reflects on the scholarship of whiteness at this moment, commenting suggestively on its deployment in elite commodities such as porcelain. Christelle Lozère addresses two conflicting visual idioms of the morality of enslavement in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Together, these essays examine the complexities of the construction of race in French visual culture, and point toward new opportunities for inquiry and teaching in eighteenth-century art history. 

Issue Editors
Susannah Blair
, Columbia University
Stephanie O’Rourke
, University of St Andrews


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

Some Thoughts on Fashion and Race in the Classroom; or, TikTok, Cottagecore, and the Allure of Eighteenth-Century Empire Style Dress
Alicia Caticha

Order and Disorder: The Iconography of Morality and Colonial Enslavement
Christelle Lozère

Ethno-geographies in the Making of Enlightenment Cartography: The Mural Maps of Jean Janvier and Sébastien-G. Longchamps (1754)
Íris Kantor and Milena Natividade da Cruz


Latitudes of Tenderness: Imagining Nouvelle France in the Ancien Régime
J. Cabelle Ahn

Overseeing Senegal: French Prints of the Late-Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade
Katherine Calvin

Cover image: Marie-Joseph-Hyacinthe Savart, Four Creole Women, 1770. Pastel on paper, 56 x 45 cm. Musée Schoelcher, Pointe-à-Pitre. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Anne Lafont, L’art et la race: L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2019). Stephanie O’Rourke, “Art and Race: A Review,” Journal18 (November 2019), https://www.journal18.org/4471.

[2] We have also adopted their scholarly practice when it comes to the use of some terms about race that are now regarded as violently pejorative. This language has only been included when it is featured in significant historical quotes and in historical titles where the term is part of the image (e.g. as a caption printed on a plate). Following the convention set out in Le Modèle noir exhibition, double-titles have been presented where the term is not part of the image. Discussion of these issues can be found in Lafont, L’Art et la race, 35-36; and the exhibition catalogue Le Modèle noir: de Géricault à Matisse, ed. Annie Dufour (Paris: Musée d’Orsay/Flammiron, 2019), 27-31 and 355.

[3] Stephen Best, “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” Representations 113:1 (2011), 150-163.

[4] Sarah Lewis’s work on the relationship between political representation and the visual in the American context serves as an important precedent for our inquiry. See “[Guest Editor’s Note],” Aperture 223 (2016), 10-14.

[5] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 6.

[6] Race currently lacks legal status within France’s Fifth Republic, a republican system of government adopted in 1958 which claims to be blind to race, gender, and religion. Of course race did have a presence within the French legal system in the long eighteenth century, from Louis XIV’s Code noir (1685) and the Edict of October 1716 to the abolition of slavery under the National Convention in 1794 and its subsequent reinstatement in Napoleon’s Law of 20 May 1802. We might think, equally, of policies enforcing the treatment of Indigenous peoples in colonial territories in North and South America as well as in South Asia.