This 1733 work by Jean Marc Nattier in the Wallace Collection demonstrates the more usual arrangement of a painting depicting black Africans – they are the the servants and attend the ‘superior’ white person.

‘Not so Black and White’: 2

At first sight the beautiful, elegant and nobly attired black woman appears not much different from any other lady sitter – apart from the colour of her skin that is. Benoist enjoys painting its dark, sumptuous tones and contrasting them with the white cloth. She is perhaps showing off her skill to the Salon audience and critics, demonstrating that she can excel at something unusual, even as a woman. We may think the bare breast is a symbol of the ‘noble savage’- that only the African woman can be natural enough to reveal. Yet many portraits show European nobles with a breast exposed – it was a sign of virtue (would you believe it?) and also of abundance and fertility. But is there another possible implication here? The Amazon warriors were purported to have removed one breast to ease their arrow shooting. Is there a reference perhaps to a fighting spirit? Or is it exposed for the delectation of the male viewer? Certainly it is emphasized by the powerful hand and scrap of bright red, placed beneath it.
Some scholars think that the artist admired her sitter (who was probably the servant of her brother-in-law), and envied her greater freedom – freedom from social etiquette that is, not personal freedom, of which she would have had little. It is notable that Benoist ended her painting career when her lawyer husband gained a prestigious post in the conservative Bourbon government. Women in 18th century France were often compared to slaves in feminist tracts – their bodies and property belonged to their husbands.
It is easy for us to romanticize this ‘exotic’ black lady. She looks so noble and dignified. The simplified Neo-Classical style renders her somehow important. But how did she feel, being requested to sit for a portrait by a privileged white superior? Did she enjoy sitting for it? Did she see it as part of her duty? Was she paid to be a model? Or did she sympathize with Benosit’s agenda, which may have been to promote white womens’ freedoms along with those of African slaves? This was the age of anti-slavery and in 1794, slavery was abolished in the French colonies (though later re-introduced). Benoist was involved in politics due to her family connections. She also had feminist inclinations and late in life started an art school for women.
The portrait received a mixed reception at the Salon. Some critics called it a ‘horror’ but others praised it. Personally I don’t think we should idealize it for its possible emancipation theme. I think it’s more likely that Benoist, like her mentor Vigee Le Brun, was clever enough to capitalize on the fashion for freedom which was at a peak at the time and that she used a bewildered servant for her own career goals.