Black acrobats, dancers and musicians in nineteenth-century European art

Patricia Plaud-Dilhuit

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At a time when people’s knowledge of Africa bordered on complete obscurantism, European artists were want to let their imaginations roam. They constructed images of black people that were totally in keeping with the dominant discourse.

Discussing African presence in nineteenth-century European art seems nigh on impossible when referring to sub-Saharan Africa given its singular absence. Artists still appeared to consider it that « Terra Incognita » which it wasn’t entirely in reality for traders, missionaries and soldiers. (1) In 1853, the artist Eugène Fromentin showed an astonishing degree of curiosity, however, in his apparent thirst for unknown climes. In his truly beautiful description of the desert in Un été dans le Sahara, he dreamt of the « prestige of the names we saw on a map, places which we know are there, […] some five, ten, or twenty days’ walk away, some of which are known, some only indicated, then others which are increasingly obscure« . In the journey southwards that he continues to map out in his mind, he comes across « Tuareks, who vaguely fill this large country of unknown dimensions, the extremities of which alone have been identified, Tembektu and Ghandmes, Timimoun and the Haussa, then that Negro country, the border of which alone can be made out; two or three names of towns, with a capital like in a kingdom; lakes, forests, a vast sea to the left, maybe big rivers, extraordinarily bad weather beneath the equator, strange produce, monstrous animals, hairy sheep, elephants. Then what? Nothing distinct, unmeasured distances, uncertainty, an enigma? The beginning of this enigma is before me, and the spectacle is strange beneath this bright midday sun. It is here that I would like to see the Egyptian sphinx« . (2) His attraction to the unknown is rare, but Fromentin no doubt offers a pretty precise image here of what sub-Saharan Africa represented to artists in the mid-nineteenth century. There was still a long way to go before getting to know Africa’s cultures.
For artists in the nineteenth century, Africa remained limited to its Mediterranean fringes, to North Africa, which was conceived of as an extension of the Orient, and the first stage in discovering the Dark Continent. When the colonial conquerors ventured further a-field in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly after 1880, artists, who were generally prompt to follow the army’s freshly traced tracks, showed no sign of interest, probably through lack of tradition, but also because they quite simply shared the general sentiment.
Africa was still the least-known continent in the world. Ethnologists studied the Middle and Far East, Oceania and South America far earlier, these regions feeding their first collections. The Trocadéro museum, for example, was full of collections from Oceania and South America at the start of the 1880s, but only possessed a handful of African objects. In the 1860s to 1870s, however, people began to show an interest in various publications, some of which were illustrated. (3) All authors who have worked on African art and primitivism in Western art, including Robert Goldwater, Jean Laude, and William Rubin, amongst others, cite a number of authors from the last decades of the nineteenth century whose works demonstrate the extent to which the general sentiment was marked by a real obscurantism. Jean Laude points out, « judgements about Africa were determined by scientific myths ». (4)
The study and exhibiting of objects indeed reinforced preconceptions. Although collections grew as of the 1840s, thanks to what were often veritable pillages, their interpretation was limited to the study of techniques and customs based purely on Western criteria, which again reinforced the image of « savage » civilisations. This in turn helped to justify colonialism’s « civilising » campaigns. Considered backward, incapable of intellectual thought, without history because without writing, and thus culture-less, « Negroes » were not considered capable of artistic expression. Yet artists occasionally focused on themes that apparently evoke black people’s cultural practices in North Africa, themes that arose from their own observations or from explorers’ accounts. It is interesting to note that these themes often involved magic, but also music and dance too.
Musicians, storytellers and charmers are the figures most often represented by artists in works that can be classed in the Orientalist vein. The English artist Frederick Goodal is thus probably referring to some magic ritual or other in his painting A New Light in the Harem. (5) This painting depicts a young, very light-skinned mother who watches from her bed as the black servant who is looking after her baby brandishes a bird that looks like a small owl over the child. This appears to be a ritual act rather than a game. The artist apparently tries to highlight the confidence the mistress places in her servant, who is in charge both of looking after the child and performing the magic rituals to protect it from the evil eye.
But the magic most artists evoke is more often a form of entertainment. Jean-François Raffaëlli offers an example of this in La Charmeuse nègre (The Negress Charmer). (6) Before devoting his austere realist works to the Paris suburbs, he produced this astonishing painting, which resumes all of Orientalism’s codes, in 1877, a year after he travelled to Algeria. In it, the magician, a black women dressed in Oriental style, accompanied by a black woman singer and black musicians, performs in front of an audience of well-to-do Algerian women, who are sat comfortably on a terrace. When Victor Prouvé later stayed in Tunisia in 1888, he produced a series of fine sketches of a black man snake charming in the street, entitled Le Charmeur de serpent (The Snake Charmer). (7) In one sketch, he uses a tambourine, in another a flute to get the animal to respond. When not reduced to the traditional image of a « servant », black people were thus often perceived as « entertainers » who perform either in the street or in private.
These may well be but innumerable anecdotes, but nonetheless prove that certain aspects of African expression had managed to infiltrate the regions the European artists frequented and made an impression on them, even if the artists did generally exploit them only in a highly conventional way. But they also matched the first accounts that certain explorers widely published in, for example, the illustrated magazine Le Tour du Monde right from the time it was launched in 1860. As Jean-Marc Boutonnet-Tranier points out, the works « were produced far from the theatre of action, based on sketches that the explorers provided. The artists’ imagination did the rest« . (8)
The physique of the black people represented in such journals varies from figures done in an academic style – dozens of black women carrying loads on their heads, who in every respect resemble the classical tradition’s innumerable nymphs and jar-bearers! – to rather dry representations of an ethnographic precision that are reminiscent of the photographic model. Whilst this may well indicate the limits of the artists’ imagination, it above all demonstrates the considerable influence of the academic tradition, which preserved the image from all caricatural bents here. It also reflects the new demands for pictorial realism and the ethnographic preoccupations that imposed at the time. Amongst the drawings illustrating each article, space was nearly always made for a representation of a scene from daily life. Sacrificing themselves to the conscience-clearing tradition, it was not rare for the theme of the slavery practiced between black peoples to be evoked. Finally, comes the recurrent dance scene. In 1875, then, E. Riou’s drawing Passion folle des femmes indigenes de Fatiko pour la musique et la danse (Fatiko Native Women’s Infatuation with Music and Dance) illustrated an article written by S.W. Baker. (9) Here, however, the illustrators appear to have cruelly lacked models. If and when they did unleash their imaginations, it was when they broached this particular theme. These drawings marked many an artist and most probably served as a model for other artists.
European travellers indeed appear to have been particularly struck by dance scenes. Right from the end of the eighteenth century, they are present in the iconography that evokes slavery. Carrying out a commission for Louis-Philippe’s Versailles history museum, the artist Edouard Auguste Nousveaux produced a painting entitled Le Prince de Joinville assistant à une danse nègre à l’île de Gorée (Sénégal), Décembre 1842 (The Prince of Joinville Watching a Native Dance on Gorée Island (Senegal), December 1842). (10) In the vast portside landscape in which the prince stands out from the large crowd, a group of dancers is drowned in the throngs. The aim of this panoramic view of the site is to honour the official visit. The native dance is undoubtedly an excuse to highlight the prince’s magnitude whilst also placing the accent on a theme that was frequently highlighted by different observers.
But this is also the theme that most escaped Western artists, who had very few visual references to go by. It was most unusual for artists to be able to work in situ as Victor Prouvé did when he painted his major Nègre dansant au clair de lune (Negro Dancing in the Moonlight) in Gabès in 1890. (11) But direct observation did not always stop artists from exaggerating features, as can be seen in Alfred Dehodencq’s Danse des Noirs à Tanger (Native Dance in Tangiers), done in 1874. (12) The quite large group includes musicians and dancers performing in a small city square. Dressed in Oriental-style clothing, with belted burnouses and turbans, the dancers perform wild, whirling movements. The composition of the group seems to accentuate the frenetic energy, and the figures’ facial expressions reinforce the roguish exuberance. The whole is not without the certain condescendence found in popular illustrations. Equally frenzied is the scene the Italian artist Stefan Ussi portrays in Le Fakir dansant (The Dancing Fakir). (13) In it, the artist, who clearly confuses cultural references to give the dance more of a magic character, proposes a fine composition in which the dark silhouettes stand powerfully out against the bright background. The artist insists on the contrast between the two musicians, dressed in loose clothing that reinforces their stasis, and a wild, skinny, half-naked, dishevelled dancer with a savage expression on his face.
These representations in many ways recall certain figures in literature, from Balzac to Jules Verne. (14) Jules Verne’s Nab is a devoted servant who starts « dancing like a Negro » to express his joy. In the Comtesse de Ségur’s Après la pluie le beau temps, a no less devoted servant called Rome demonstrates « his happiness in the usual Negro way: he jumped, span, making discordant cries ». Representations of African dance highlighted their savage character, quite unlike the languorous movements of the Orientals. (15) Such interpretations on the part of artists and writers echoed the theories that, when they didn’t actually liken Africans to animals, at very least considered them to be childlike.
Whilst black slaves were generally allotted the most thankless tasks, a few thus participated in enlivening their wealthy masters’ leisure time or performed in small street troupes. Artists frequently depicted them in harem dance scenes, with black people playing local, stringed, or more often percussive instruments. There are innumerable examples which vary very little. We can nonetheless cite Ferdinand Roybet’s curious painting, Le Divertissement du marabout (Entertaining the Diviner). (16) In it, the artist depicts a black woman in an Oriental interior, wearing an equally Oriental shiny costume, who appears to be beating a rhythm on a large tambourine for the diviner in front of her. The tame bird is perhaps used for some kind of street performance, unless it is a « pet », whose reactions to the music amuse its mistress or servant-woman. This painting brings to mind Félicien Chamsaur’s novel, L’Amant des danseuses, published in 1888, which includes an account of a visit to the zoo. A « concert » of exotic birds takes place, in which two wader birds participate: « In guise of an orchestra, two diviners played the castanets snapping their long beaks shut« . (17) Childlike, wild dances, weird music, popular shows – these were the stereotypes that emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century by which European artists perceived African culture.
It is a pity that Fromentin – him again – did not choose to paint an encounter he recounts in Un été dans le Sahara. En route for Aïn-Mahdy, his group comes across two « Negro men, real true-blooded, jet-black Negroes, with rough spots on their legs and deeply wrinkled faces that the desert had tanned a grey colour. Their skin looked like bark. They were wearing turbans, jackets and loose pants […]. One had a string of reed flutes around his neck […]. He was holding a carved wood musette, inlayed with mother-of-pearl and beautifully decorated with shells. The other was carrying a guitar round his neck made out of a turtle shell, with a rough wooden handle fixed to it. […] They were thus performers with their puppets« . This encounter reminded Fromentin of another chance encounter that took place years earlier at Blidha, on the way to Algiers, with a native of Auvergne « who was pushing a barrel organ, playing Grace be to God as he walked along. That day I was indignant. Yesterday, as I left the Negro musicians behind, this memory came back to me, and I took it better […]« . Fromentin then continues in a way that necessarily sets up echoes for us, writing: « I compared these poor emigrants, one of whom was from Bernou, the other from Cantal or Savoie, and I couldn’t help but admire such chance’s combinations, thinking that one day they might bump into one another, one with his shell guitar, the other with his music, and that they would play Negro and Parisian tunes together in the middle of an Arab town that was now French. » (18)
But the time had not yet come when « black » music would open white people up to a new musical world.

1. France’s first contacts with Africa date back to the sixteenth century, and took place mainly in West Africa. In the seventeenth century, they sailed up the River Senegal, and in 1687 reached the Félou Falls, a thousand kilometres from the coast.
2. La Revue de Paris, 1854. Paris: Editions France-Empire, republished 1992, pp. 146-147.
3. See notably Jean-Louis Paudra, From Africa, Primitivism in 20th Century Art, New York & Boston, 1984, pp. 125-175. We must also highlight the important role the colonial administrator Maurice Delafosse played in France. He fought against ethnocentric judgements, but was very much an exception. His publications were truly precursory, including: « Note sur une figure du Dahomé représentant une femme enceinte », L’Anthropologie, V, 157-172, 1894; « Une statue dahoméénne en font », La Nature, I, 145-147, 1894; « Statues des rois du Dahomé au musée ethnographique du Trocadéro », idem, 145-147; « Au sujet des statuettes en pierre du Kissi (Guinée), Revue d’Ethnographie et de Sociologie, 143-147, 1914; « Contribution à l’étude du théâtre chez les Noirs », Bulletin du Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques de l’AOF, 352-355, 1916.
4. Jean Laude, Les Arts de l’Afrique noire, 1966, Livre de Poche, 1972, p. 28.
5. Frederick Goodal, A New Light in the Harem, 1884, oil canvas, 122 x 213.5 cm, Liverpool, Sudley Art Gallery.
6. Raffaëlli, La Charmeuse nègre, 1877, oil canvas, 60 x 92 cm, private collection.
7. Victor Prouvé, Le Charmeur de serpent, 1888, graphite on paper, one of which 20.3 x 19.4 cm, the other 29.8 x 19.8 cm, Nancy, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy.
8. These articles have been collected and republished by Jean-Marc Boutonnet-Tramnier in, L’Afrique fantastique par les explorateurs et les dessinateurs du XIXe siècle, ed. J-M Boutonnet-Tranier, Aethiopia Editions, 1993.
9. Ibid. S.W Baker: « Récit d’une expedition armée dans l’Afrique Centrale pour la suppression de la traite des noires (1869-1873) ».
10. Oil canvas, 131 x 178 cm, 1846, Versailles, Musée national du Château et des Trianons. This little-known artist apparently produced several works on Senegal, including: Campement au Sénégal, oil canvas, 128.5 x 176 cm, undated (c. mid-19th century), Chantilly, Musée Condé; Ustensiles, textiles de la Sénégambie, painting, mid-19th century, Le-Puy-en-Velay, Musée Crozatier.
11. Victor Prouvé, Nègres dansant au clair de la lune, Gabès, 3 mai 1890, pencil on paper, 40.6 x 56 cm; and Nègre dansant au clair de la lune, Gabès, 4 mai 1890; pencil on paper, 21.9 x 34.1 cm, Nancy, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy.
12. Alfred Dehodencq: Danse des Noirs à Tanger, 1874, oil canvas, 152 x 202 cm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay.
13. Stafan Ussi, Le Fakir dansant, undated, oil on wood, 23 x 35 cm, private collection.
14. W.B. Cohen, Français et Africains, les Noirs dans le regard des Blancs, 1530-1880, Paris, Gallimard, 1981, pp. 357-358.
15. Even if the artist Benjamin-Constant testifies to black women’s inclusion in North African harems in La Danse du foulard, oil canvas, 61 x 100 cm.
16. Ferdinand Roybet, Le Divertissement du marabout, undated, oil canvas, 89 x 129 cm, private collection.
17. Paris, Dentu. Cited by Guy Ducrey, « Corps et graphies. Poétique de la danse et de la danseuse à la fine du XIXe siècle », Paris, Honoré Champion, 1996, p. 98.
18. Fromentin, 1992, pp. 187-189.
///Article N° : 5629


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