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)