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#WhiteHistoryMonth: Canada’s Art History
Netta Kornberg | March 15th, 2014

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In 1786, François Malépart de Beaucourt, a painter in New France (later Quebec), completed a portrait of a woman he owned. Though Canada’s slave-owning history is often whitewashed, it exists in documents such as the painting Portrait of a Negro Slave. That portrait and what it says about Canada’s history and Canadian art historiography, is the subject of this excerpt from Charmaine Nelson’s Representing the Black Female Subject in Western Art:

Art historical discourse has traditionally suppressed race as a valid topic of scholarly inquiry through the exclusionary deployment of methodologies that privileged biographical, connoisseurship and formalistic inquiries. These socially detached and/or culturally exclusive, predominantly aesthetic histories supported the (re)constitution of materially and ideologically exclusive canons and successions of white male masters. This colonial bias has impacted every aspect of the discipline, from what cultural objects are deemed significant enough to be researched or written about, the accessibility or preservation of a cultural object (which is directly connected to its canonical value and acquisition by an institutional collection), the access to documentation to facilitate research (the archives and libraries are not neutral), how one frames one’s research, which questions are validated and therefore posed in the face of an art object and last but surely not least, the very identities—the sex, race, etc.—of the art historians themselves.

A poignant example of the art historical devaluation and suppression of issues of race exists in the Canadian historiography of a celebrated eighteenth-century portrait painting of a black female slave. Within the annals of Canadian Art History, François Malépart de Beaucourt’s Portrait of a Negro Slave (1786), a rare visual document of a slave in early New France, has traditionally been discussed almost entirely in terms of its stylistic and tonal properties, the location represented in the portrait and the status and oeuvre of the painter. For example, Dennis Reid, author of the canonical text A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1988), described it as an object that François Malépart de Beaucourt painted possibly “while sojourning in Guadeloupe.” But I would argue that the speculation on a tropical location, although legitimately triggered by the lush mountainous landscape, the tropical fruit still life and the quality of light captured in the landscape vignette beyond the black woman’s bare right shoulder, also serves to expel Trans Atlantic Slavery and the presence of black slaves from Canadian territory and narratives. Disavowing not only Canadian slavery, but Trans Atlantic Slavery generally, Major-Frégeau argued that the black female sitter could be a perfectly free young West Indian. And through this expulsion, slavery can be always elsewhere. As [Barry] Lord has astutely argued [in Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art (1974)]: “Why is this foreign setting necessary? Along with the imported fruit and the colourful costume, it helps to make the subject exotic, unfamiliar, yet appealing. To imperialists and to their comprador allies . . . the working people of the colonies always appear as exotic, and it is one of the artist’s services to them to picture colonial people in this way.”

The extraordinary rarity of fully finished oil portraits of black slaves in western art generally can hardly be overstated. As such, a critical analysis of this painting holds the tremendous potential to shed light on the experiences of black female slaves in Canada, but more generally on the conditions and practices of slavery in New France. The prolific disavowal of the racial implications of this unique portrait has occurred despite the artist’s obvious desire to foreground the slave’s sexual and reproductive utility through the exposed breast over the plate of tropical fruit, despite the known historical documents that record the slave as the legal property of the artist and despite the circulating title of the work that indexes both the significance of the race (Negro) and the subordinate legal status of the sitter (slave) and even despite the obvious opportunities to address the circumstances of production, the function and circulation of a unique portrait whose commission was likely (and unusually) not instigated by its sitter herself (for how many slaves had the agency or the wealth to commission portraits?). Instead, François Malépart de Beaucourt has been regularly and problematically lauded as Canada’s first native artist and the inherently coercive nature of his (potential) sexual relationship with this female slave diffused through the deployment of the term “mistress” to describe what would have been a polarized, “miscegenating,” colonial “union.” Whereas Morisset used the term mistress, Webster made similar implications about the sexual intimacy of Malépart de Beaucourt and his black female sitter when he described her as his slave and servant “and perhaps more.” (65-66)

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Netta Kornberg

Netta Kornberg is an editor, researcher, writer and programs coordinator, currently based in Toronto. She recently completed an MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, focusing on literature.

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7 thoughts on “#WhiteHistoryMonth: Canada’s Art History

  1. This painting is known under various names, “Portrait of a Haitian Woman” is the most wide spread,and is how McCord’s Museum has named it. Other names are “Portrait of a Negro Slave” and “The Negress”. Depends on what kind of story you try to build around it.
    What Nelson proposes is mere conjecture. She suggests, “without any hard evidence”, that the woman on the painting is Marie-Therese, one of two slaves in the household. If that is true, she would have been 15 years of age in 1786. Look at the paiting and figure out if this is correct.
    But never mind that. de Beaucourt painted a black woman underpinning her exotism, sexuality and fertility, implying her availability with an exposed shoulder. Why did he paint it? Rather silly implying it would have been on commission. Perhaps the painter found her attractive. Perhaps they had a relation. Or, perhaps someone else actually had a relation with her and paid the commission.
    There are many examples of paintings of moores from the Medieval Age onwards. Look at Albrecht Durer. Or Jordaens. And they did not depict moores as simple stereotypes. Beaucourts painting isn’t that good, but it is not unflattering.
    That Canadians had slaves may be news to many, but why should they be expected to differ from the rest of the world? Chattel slavery was all over Europe at the time. More to the point is that slavery in Canada came to an end after England abolished it.

    • Hi Drox— I think Nelson’s insistence on calling it Portrait of a Negro Slave as an insistence on confronting Canada’s history, redirecting the inquiry from the usual “biographical, connoisseurship and formalistic inquiries.” You said that the name depends on the kind of story you’re trying to build around the painting, and I agree. The story Nelson is building, in my opinion, is one that actually involves the social history of the painter and the woman he painted instead of trying to ignore the violent implications of the painting. I really don’t see how it is “mere conjecture” that the woman is Marie-Therese. Who are you quoting when you say “‘without any hard evidence’”? That there might be a discrepancy between the woman’s actual age and how she is represented in the portrait kind of reinforces the point—the painting, as a constructed image that emphasizes fertility, doesn’t offer any obvious insight about the woman herself. About the painter’s motivation and his relationship to the woman: The last bit of the excerpt addresses the problematic ways that their possible sexual relationship has been described in ways that brush aside the violence of sexual ‘relations’ between a slave and a slave owner. Lastly, that most of the world was implicated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade doesn’t exonerate Canada and is in no way a reason to dismiss efforts at addressing the violences in our history, their legacies and the traces they leave (in the form of a painting, for example).

      • Hi Netta,
        the quote of “no hard evidence” is from Nelson herself. She is speculating. And since the woman on the canvas is older, it is much more likely to be of someone else.
        And Lords idea that the palm tree was painted there to give the illusion that this black woman wasn’t actually in slavery in Canada is, well, preposterous.

        As for a level playing field, I would suggest that Europeans and Americans have come quite far in recognizing their past, esp. in comparison with Sub-Saharan Africa where the subject is still too hot to bring up easily, since slave master relations still exist or are not fully resolved in regions like Mauretania, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Sudan etc. And in North Africa/Middle East it is still ongoing.
        Let us recognize the past and keep on writing the true story. But forget the accusations, only stirring anger and impeding a meaningful debate.
        There are websites with excellent information such as this http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/assessment/essays-intro-01.faces

    • Hey Drox—this is the last reply I’ll make. I’m still not sure where Nelson said “no hard evidence,” but I’ll take your word for it, acknowledging that those words have been displaced. The identity of the sitter may never be known with 100% assurance, but Nelson is a top-notch historian who is basing her claim on established research. It is not speculation. A casual observation that the woman seems older than 15 really isn’t strong evidence to disprove Nelson’s research. As to Lord’s quote. The tree, fruit, etc. which inscribe a tropical or exotic location work in complex ways. As far as I know, no one is arguing that that was there for the express and sole purpose of denying slavery in Canada. But the fact that so many art historians have used those elements to locate the sitter as being located somewhere other than Canada– it needs to be interrogated why, which is what Lord and Nelson offer. About slavery now and acknowledging the past—what the treatment of this painting shows is that there are still serious problems with the way we do that, at least in Canada. This painting was going to be displayed in a museum in Montreal recently in a very problematic way and it required Nelson to step in to say that, actually, if we’re going to hang this portrait up, we’re going to have to talk about slavery in Canada. You locate slavery again as happening somewhere else – Africa and the Middle East – but the fact is that illegal slaves exist in Canada. More to the point, a lot of current-day slavery and indentured labour is part of world industrial systems—sweatshop labourers making pittance working under horrid conditions so that Canadians can buy jeans for $30. That may not be on Canadian soil, but slavery is still part of our economy

  2. You state that the artist served imperial interests by “making” exotic its subject. I wonder if this is the right way to put it. If there is any work to be done when people from different cultures encounter each other it would seem to me to be to do precisely the opposite. I.e. the exoticism of foreign peoples and cultures is real. Our moral obligation is to make sure that we don’t allow these differences to justify discriminatory behavior between groups. History has shown us that doing that is easier said than done. In an earlier post Baldwin challenged “whites” to examine their failure in this regard and I read this “white history” series as an attempt to help them do just that. It is welcome. Without trying to minimize the unique imperial history of the West, I would extend the challenge to all people particularly in a world where non-white interests are increasingly becoming influential at the global-scale.

    • The part which describes how different elements of the painting “‘helps to make the subject exotic’” is a quote from Barry Lord’s book. As I understand it, in the context of this painting, exoticism is evoked to deny the presence of slaves on Canadian soil. The issue here is that difference does not exist on level playing fields, as an opportunity for exchange and encounter. Exoticism hides Canada’s history of violence and participation in slave trades. Also, here is the post which explains AIAC’s intentions with White History Month: http://africasacountry.com/white-history-month-2/

      • Thanks for the reply. My point was that exoticism rarely need be “evoked” as it is already there so I find the line of analysis sterile. It stretches credulity that a couple tropical fruits could be construed as an active attempt by the artist to deny that Canada had slaves. Certainly different cultures/people rarely meet on level playing fields. Never have, never will.

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