By the time she was six years old, French artist Elizabeth Colomba already had dreams of becoming a painter. The daughter of immigrants from Martinique, she gleefully declared to her mother that she would follow in the footsteps of Picasso after reading about the famed artist in a Parisian newspaper.
Since then, she has spent most of her life devoted to painting. In her works, she portrays Black historical characters in the affluent settings from which they were traditionally excluded or erased. Her goal is to paint Black people as they never have been depicted before in art history.
“I seek to shed light on Black historical figures that might never receive the sort of attention they deserve,” she said.
As the art world has placed a spotlight on the historical exclusion of Black artists, figures, and perspectives from the canon, the French artist has gained increased fame. Colomba’s pieces have appeared in numerous institutional shows and are held in the permanent collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem and Princeton University. In March, she inaugurated her first solo museum exhibition, at Princeton University. Curated by Laura Giles and Monique Long, the show presents an exquisite selection of the artist’s paintings of historical and fictional Black women, alongside Cendrillon (2018), the only film Colomba has made to date.
Born in 1976, and now based in New York, Colomba studied at the Estienne School of Art and the esteemed École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She has become known for taking up Old Masters’ techniques and using them toward contemporary ends. Many of her paintings appear to be set in the past, though they have a resonance that speaks to the current moment.
Colomba occasionally paints men and lately has even turned her attention to still lifes, two of which are currently on show at the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora. However, the artist said she is mostly interested in focusing on women for a few reasons.
To begin with, she is fond of finding herself in her representations. “There’s also the idea that when you’re a woman, looking at a woman, it’s a different gaze,” she said. “Especially when you’re looking at a time period in which women were seen as mainly objects.” But Colomba also believes her subject matter has something to do with her first-ever encounter with a historical painting depicting a Black woman.
“I was at the Louvre, still in art school, and I saw a beautiful portrait that has now been renamed Portrait of Madeleine,” she said. “Before, it was known as Portrait of a Negress. It was this beautiful representation of 18th-century painting and one of the first paintings where you see only a Black woman.”
“She’s taking up all of the space,” Colomba continued. “She is the painting. She is not a prop. She is not in a supporting role. She is, essentially, the main subject. Maybe I always seek to reproduce that feeling I had when I first saw it, since it was quite impactful.”
To select the characters shown in her works, Colomba conducts extensive research, often turning to books about slavery and colonialism while allowing herself to be guided by intrigue.
Speaking about the captivating figure in her portrait Biddy Mason (2006)—currently on show in the exhibition “Black American Portraits” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—Colomba passionately narrated the story of Mason, a medicine woman who was born into slavery in Georgia. Mason gained her freedom in Los Angeles, and turned herself into a millionaire and philanthropist.
“She gave back to the community by opening a daycare for Black kids,” Colomba said. “She built a church and helped anybody regardless of their ethnicity or beliefs. She had an extraordinary story. And it’s people like this that I want to portray and put back in the light,” Colomba said.
Likewise, Colomba lit up when sharing the backstory of her artwork Chevalier de St Georges (2010), which depicts a Black man in elegant 18th-century attire, standing tall behind a portrait of himself that appears to have been just unveiled. Its titular subject was the son of a French white man and an African woman in bondage, and he ultimately became known as the “Black Mozart,” despite historically being a predecessor to Mozart himself.
Colomba’s art has found a mirror in an approach being taken by some curators right now. There was, for instance, Denise Murrell’s 2018 exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” which took as its starting point Laure, a Black woman who modeled as a servant for the Manet painting Olympia. For that show, Colomba herself painted the model in a work known as Laure (Portrait of a Negress), 2018. In stark contrast to Manet’s meek representation, Colomba’s Laure takes center stage. Far from being in a subservient position, she appears calm and in charge of herself while walking down a Caillebotte-like street.
In a similar vein to “Posing Modernity,” there is the show “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Devoted to Carpeaux’s famous marble bust Why Born Enslaved! (1868), it is the first exhibition at the Met to review Western sculpture through the lens of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For the show’s catalogue, Colomba wrote about the way in which the Black body was perceived in the 19th century through the gaze of white artists.
“Hell is paved with great intentions. Though [artists] were trying to do their best to denounce the cruelty and horror that was slavery, a lot of the work is still representing women in bondage,” she said. “So the essay is a bit about that paradox, and also the idea that Black women are used as a commodity because that bust was one of the most successful by Carpeaux and he was able to reproduce it countlessly.”
And not far from “Carpeaux Recast,” there is another Colomba painting at the Met right now. Titled Armelle (1997), it figures in a Winslow Homer retrospective and depicts a young Black woman, the artist’s cousin, in a pose similar to that of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X (1883–84), which Colomba says inspired the painting. The woman is contemplating Under the Palm Tree (1885), a watercolor piece that also spotlights a Black woman and was painted by Holmer in the Bahamas. Colomba’s piece is meant to dialogue with both Homer’s oeuvre and the Met’s extensive collection of Sargent’s works.
With her work being exhibited at numerous venues, Colomba relates her growing success with an overdue moment of racial reckoning within the art world that began in 2020.
“People are paying more attention—it was a bit like everybody realized that Blackness is around and everywhere,” she said. “So I do think there is an increased interest in what I do and what I represent as a Black woman artist,” she says.
Regardless, the French painter is wary of declaring that she has turned a corner, let alone arrived. “What is incredible and scary about being an artist is that there is no certainty of anything,” she said. “You always feel like it’s almost too good to be true. You always have this constant anxiety, which is maybe a good thing. Maybe it’s a way of being able to push yourself, of never feeling like you arrived anywhere, of always exploring new ideas and new ways of putting your narrative out there.”