Until very recently, it was assumed that almost every marble version of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved! (1868) had been lost to time. The bust is considered one of the most important depictions from the 19th century of an enslaved person, though it was made 20 years after the second abolition of slavery in France. In 2018, a version of the sculpture of a nude Black womanbound by ropes resurfaced and ultimately made its way to Christie’s in Paris. Casting Carpeaux as an “ardent opponent of slavery,” the auction house touted the work for “putting [the viewer] face to face with the reality of servitude.” It was bought by a dealer for the equivalent of more than $300,000. That dealer later sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which officially added this Carpeaux work—it also owns a terracotta version that it acquired in 1997—to its holdings in 2019.
The ways Christie’s described Why Born Enslaved! and its many versions are similar to ones that numerous historians, museums, and critics have put forward in the over 150 years since its making. But the truth of the work’s creation and the context from which it was borne is more complex. Carpeaux was in dire financial straits when he produced the work, which was reproduced many times over by his workshop before his death in 1875 at 48, and so Why Born Enslaved! was for him one way of capitalizing on a fervor for abolitionist imagery in France, where he was based. And while Carpeaux may have grown famous for works such as this one, with its finely wrought psychology and its skillful rendering of tensile flesh, the identity of the model for Why Born Enslaved! remains unknown. All of which is not to mention the work’s similarities to ethnographical sculptures, which were used throughout the West for centuries as a racist tool to assert the dominance of whites over the various peoples they colonized.
Now, the marble and terracotta versions of Why Born Enslaved! form the centerpieces of a new exhibition at the Met that is unlike anything ever mounted at the institution in its history. Titled “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast,” this small but potent show opens today. It treats Why Born Enslaved! critically, casting it in light of other works of the 19th century that deal with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and the abolitionist movements within France and the U.S. The show’s thesis—that the Carpeaux’s image of an anonymous Black person has had damaging effects that have rippled out across the centuries—will be provocative for some. Even more shocking for many will be its presence alone at the Met, which has rarely, if ever, contended so directly with the role that art has played in structural racism.
“Many works of art carry an abolitionist message, but nonetheless contribute to notions of racial inequality,” said Elyse Nelson, an assistant curator in the Met’s European paintings and drawings department who organized the exhibition with Wendy S. Walters, a poet and associate professor of writing and director of nonfiction concentration at Columbia University. “That contradiction is the norm in Western art. I think there’s still a lot of confusion around that issue, and I really hope that visitors come to see that and recognize it.”
“Carpeaux Recast” was one of the first shows that Nelson proposed when she was hired by the Met in 2019. In February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic in New York, the show was approved, only for the Met to close for six months. During the summer of 2020, as protests over structural racism following the murder of George Floyd roiled the nation, Walters, who had in 2019 been asked by the Met to respond to the Carpeaux piece for the museum’s site, was brought on as a curator of the show.
There are forerunners to the show. The Met has exhibited the terracotta version of Why Born Enslaved! many times, most notably in a 2014 Carpeaux retrospective, which included some 150 works and touted the artist as an “exceptionally gifted, deeply tormented sculptor who defined the heady atmosphere of the Second Empire in France.” This new show is meant as a corrective, according to Nelson, who said that she and Walters were trying to “critically engage with issues of imperialism and colonialism that are present in that bust that were not addressed in that exhibition.”
And then there is the example of the landmark 2018 show “Posing Modernity,” which opened at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery and which considered the role that Black models played in French art of the late 19th century, most notably the paintings of Édouard Manet. (Denise Murrell, the curator of that exhibition, was later hired by the Met.) Unlike “Posing Modernity,” however, the model who set for Carpeaux is largely not the focus. The curators found a promising lead for her identity—she may have been Louise Kuling, a free woman who came to France from Virginia. But there wasn’t proof positive that Kuling was the person Carpeaux was depicting. “We felt that if we were to say that she was definitely the model, or to make that presumption, we would be participating in that kind of speculation about the work and its origins that we were trying to organize the show against,” Walters said.
And, to compound the problem, Why Born Enslaved! is “not a portrait,” Nelson added.
Instead, it is an allegory of a sort, a figure that is effectively standing in for a whole—in this case, a whole race. As “Carpeaux Recast” points out, this approach to sculpture was widely used at the time, with artists such as Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the same sculptor who would later design the Statue of Liberty, crafting portrayals that depicted Black men and women as Africa personified. These works enlisted facial features and body types that ethnographers linked to Black people, in a form of junk science that aimed to prove the differences between Europeans and people of African descent. As art historian James Smalls writes in the show’s catalogue, ethnographic objects are “fictive surrogates for actual bodies.”
The Carpeaux sculpture could be said to work similarly, offering up an abolitionist message through an enslaved woman with her breasts bared. “Bourgeois or Second Empire clientele were extremely fascinated with, and intrigued by, it for a number of reasons,” Nelson said. “Slavery as a subject matter becomes a pretext for the depiction of bound female nude bodies. That’s the irony that we’ve tried to underline, that while it carries an anti-slavery message, it’s not a work that represents equality. It represents subjugation.” Furthermore, she said, owning the work could be a form of “virtue signaling,” given that France had outlawed slavery—for the second time—in 1848, nearly two decades before Carpeaux made Why Born Enslaved!
Nelson’s words are all the more striking in light of another work in the show: a sculpture of a very different tenor by Edmonia Lewis, an artist of African American and Anishinaabe and Ojibwe heritage who rose to fame around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Positioned at the center of the show not far from the Carpeaux sculptures, Forever Free (1867) was created while the artist was living in Rome, and shows a Black slave standing up with an arm raised. A broken chain dangles from his wrist as a young woman gazes upward at him. “We wanted to keep in mind that there were other interpretations of emancipation that were being created right around the same time that the Carpeaux was being created,” said Walters.
Much of “Carpeaux Recast” appears to be set more than a century in the past, but Walters is quick to point out that Why Born Enslaved! has implications for the present. “In the contemporary context, there have also been people who sought out this work for the fact of its representational aspects, for the fact that it’s a realistic, naturalistic portrayal of a Black woman, whether or not it’s a real person or an imagined person,” she said. A cast of the Carpeaux piece appeared in Janet Jackson’s home when it was photographed by Architectural Digest, and it showed up in Beyoncé’s 2020 Ivy Park ad campaign.
As if to further underline that point, the curators have also included two works from the past few years by Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley. The Walker piece is a direct response to the Carpeaux. Titled Negress (2017), an allusion to the name long used by scholars to refer to Why Born Enslaved!, the Walker piece is a plaster cast of the Carpeaux that is set low in a corner. For Walters, it asks the question: “Who owns the representation, and who has the authority to shape the presentation of the representation?”
One answer may come courtesy of a poem that Walters wrote for the Met in 2019, titled “In the Gallery.” In the first part narrated by the woman depicted by Carpeaux, Walters writes, “My name, for now, is my body / Soft in flesh but louder in stone. / I find my way through years of silences / After a life surrounded by enemies.”