ben po                         Benoist Innocence

Marie-Guillemine Benoist: Portrait of a Negress 1800; Innocence between Virtue and Vice 

‘Not so Black and White’: 1

No-one’s ever heard of Marie-Guillemine Benoist. For a start, her name is impossible to get to pronounce. Moreover, if you look at her flattering self portrait of 1790, you could be forgiven for thinking she’s more interested in being a fashion icon than an artist. With her classy neoclassical dress, her free-flowing hair and her alluring expression, she could entice even the most faithful wedded man. She shows herself at work but the way she is turned towards the viewer and the fact she has not a spot of paint on her lovely white dress or pale forearms, makes this seem somewhat unbelievable.(Though it is the norm in women’s self portraiture as they were expected to be lady-like at all times). How could this ‘girl’ have painted such a powerful masterpiece as the 1800 painting ‘Portrait of a Negress’? In fact, how could any woman artist prior to the 20th Century, have painted an image with such strong political implications?
Benoist was a very successful high society artist from a privileged background, and like most female artists of the time, mainly did portraiture, which was thought a suitable genre for the fairer sex. She was also involved in the top levels of government due to family connections, which helps to explain her interest in the slavery issues embodied in this work. She was also involved in the revolutionary regime, executing a portrait of Napoleon’s sister and training for a year in the influential republican Jacques Louis David’s famous studio. The latter was keen to support women artists in the ‘serious’ genre of history painting – one from which they were largely excluded due to their prohibition from the life class. (David was prohibited from entering them into the life class by the prestigious and controlling French Academy).
The influence of the powerfully virile David helps to explain Benoist’s feisty narrative morality painting ‘Innocence between Virtue and Vice’ in which the allegorical figure of Vice is portrayed as man rather than the more traditional ‘sinful’ woman. Torn between the worldly life which was governed by the patriarchy and in which women had few rights and the more heavenly one in which a taste of freedom could be found, (symbolized by the sunrise and the temple), you could see the work as a kind of self portrait. It is known that Benoist had Feminist inclinations and later on she set up an art school for women. Convention compelled her to marry, but perhaps, like her mentor Vigee le Brun, she would have preferred to remain free? This conflict between freedom and social restriction is also expressed in ‘Portrait of a Negress’ and mirrors one of the major concerns of late 18th Century France as it strove to modernize. It also helps to explain the discrepancy between her dainty Rococo-style self portrait and her political masterpiece. See next Blog: ‘Not so Black and White 2’.