Girodet, Jean-Baptiste Belley, 1797, (Versailles) / The following biographical information comes from wikipedia.
Born around 1747 in Senegal, Belley he was sold to French slavers at age two and sent to the French colony of Saint Dominque (modern Haiti). By the later 18th century, Belley had earned enough to purchase his freedom. Inspired by the French Revolution and the ?Declaration of the Rights of Man? issued by French revolutionaries in 1789, the African slaves of Sant Domingue rose up in armed rebellion against French colonists in 1791 (achieving liberty only in 1804). By 1793, Belley had emerged as a leader of the African forces, serving as captain. In September, 1793, Belley was elected deputy to the French National Convention and became its first black deputy. On 3 February 1794, he spoke in a debate before the unanimous vote to abolish slavery. And in 1789, he published, Le Bout d'oreille des colons, an attack on a pro-slavery faction led by the deputy from Mauritius who was working to exclude political representation from all French colonies lest the anti-slavery rebellion in Haiti spread elsewhere. In 1797, Belley lost his sat in the Convention and returned to Sant Domingue in 1802 as an officer of gendarmes but was arrested and sent back to France where he died in prison in 1805.
Girodet shows Belley leaning casually against a classicizing marble bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal (d. 1796), a leading French Enlightenment writer on colonial policy and an advocate of the abolition of slavery. Raynal?s chief work was the ?Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements des Européens dans les Deux Indes (Amsterdam, 1770)., a rambling, book co-written by Diderot and others mingling inaccurate accounts of life in French colonies east and west with angry poilitical speeches. [ See Peter Jimack, ed., A History of the Two Indies - A Translated Selection of Writings from Raynal's Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements des Européens dans les Deux Indes, Ashgate, 2006.] After Raynal?s book was published in France in 1779, it was banned and an arrest warrant issued. He fled to Germany and Russia before being allowed to return to home in 1787 while remaining exiled from Paris. Elected to the States-General in 1797, his age prevented him from serving. On 31 May, 1791, he confirmed his status as a marginalized bystander by sending a letter to the Constituent Assembly warning against the violence of its reforms.
On the one hand, Girodet?s painting is impressive in its large size and its aristocratic elegance encompassing costume and relaxed demeanor. Belley stands with his lower body set against a tropical landscape and his torso and head set against a nobler, eternal sphere of celestial mind where the bust of Raynal has been placed. The panoramic landscape recalls similar landscapes by seventeenth-century Dutch painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Salomon Koninck and goes back ultimately to a Renaissance-Baroque portrait tradition including works by Rubens (Helena Fourment), Leonardo, Ghirlandaio, Memling, and Piero (Federico da Montefeltro). Given the central importance of nature as a new, secular, empirical framework for Enlightenment social and political theory (as it had earlier been for Renaissance humanism), the landscape and the celestial gaze of Belley suggest Revolutionary ideas of Republican Nature and Divine Providence expressed visually in the revolutionary festivals designed by Girodet?s teacher, Jacques Louis David.
By placing both heads on the same level, Girodet affirmed the new French ideal of political equality. Although Belley leans on the bust of Raynal to acknowledge the philosophe?s importance as precursor and a fellow-thinker (or even kindred spirit), Belley turns his back on Raynal to look in the opposite direction as if Raynal represented the past and Belley the future.
The sympathetic treatment of Belley as a noble thinker does not mean the portrait was free of demeaning racial stereotypes widespread in late eighteenth- century Europe. As many observers have noted since the early 1980s, Girodet?s portrait contrasts French clothing and Enlightenment political philosophy, embodied by the gleaming white bust of Raynal, with the large, bulging phallus clearly visible under Belley's clothing and implicitly pointed out by his right index finger. In part, we should see this contrast of white civilization with savage black body as part of the contradictory values of that early abolitionist age in which new liberal attitudes could not fully extinquish nor conceal lingering white anxieties and fears about black bodies and ?savage? natures?. The dressing up of a ?savage? African in the elegant clothing of modern French civilization plays on from on the conventional, late 18th-century idea of the ?noble savage? masked but not transformed by civilized artifice. (This convention, in turn, drew on an older literary convention, popular in comedy, of the rustic dressed up as a gentleman, or the bourgeois dressed up as a nobleman.) Modern viewers might compare Girodet?s portrait of Belley to Robert Maplethorpe's famous photograph deconstructing these stereotypes of the black man, or rather the black penis, protruding from the white business suit.
At the same time, Girodet?s portrait of Belley also reminds us that liberal writers consciously celebrated ?savage? bodily qualities and instincts in their very tributes to human equality and their ground-breaking attacks on slavery. In this sense, Belley?s savage body is less an unconscious expression of vestigal, traditional racist ideas than an open and explicit celebration of modern, Enlightenment racist values central to the concept of the ?noble savage? itself which places civilization and savagery in an uneasy concordia discors .