Hybrid Zones: Representations of Race in Late Nineteenth-Century French Visual Culture

Posted in Dissertations, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-11-07 02:30Z by Steven

Hybrid Zones: Representations of Race in Late Nineteenth-Century French Visual Culture

University of Kansas
April 2011
358 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3456911
ISBN: 9781124667348

Rozanne McGrew Stringer

In this study, I examine images of the black female and black male body and the female Spanish Gypsy by four artists—Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, FrĂ©dĂ©ric Bazille, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec—that articulate the instability of racial categories and stereotypes assigned to racialized populations by French artists, natural scientists, anthropologists, and writers between 1862 and 1900. Notably, whiteness—made visible and raced—is also implicated in some of the images I analyze. I look closely at the visual stereotype of the seductive, dark-skinned female Spanish Gypsy and the primitive and debased black male, as well as at representations of the abject black female body. I also consider the construction of “whiteness” as an unfixed and complex notion of French identity, particularly as it applies to the bourgeois white female body.

I analyze images in which representations of racial identity seem unproblematic, but I show that these images articulate a host of uncertainties. I contextualize each image through analyses of nineteenth-century French representations of the black person and Spanish Gypsy by modernist and academic artists, nineteenth-century racialist science, French fiction and periodicals, and entertainment spectacles such as the circus and human zoos. My methodology draws primarily on formalism, social history, and postcolonial and feminist theory.

In my examination of representations of racial difference in late nineteenth-century French visual culture, I investigate images of racialized bodies specifically through the lens of hybridity, a term employed by nineteenth-century biologists and natural scientists to define the intermixing of races and cultures. The fascination with and fear of hybrid races increasingly dominated the discourses on racial hierarchies and classifications. I explore nineteenth-century notions of racial hybridity through the emerging science of anthropology, but I also expand my study to interrogate hybridity as the cross-fertilization of cultures and identity. I consider how these images expand and problematize the meaning of hybridity and its antithetical concept of racial purity. I also demonstrate the paradoxical correspondence and oscillation between the racial stereotype and the culturally dominant power responsible for the stereotype’s creation and perpetuation. My study seeks to illuminate what I see as the hybridity and heterogeneity of racial identity, for the person of color as well as for the “white” European, discretely and subtly disclosed in these images.

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Mme Camus’s Shadow: Degas and Racial Consciousness
  • Chapter Two: Manet’s Gypsy with a Cigarette: Unfixing the Racial Stereotype
  • Chapter Three: Beholding Beauty: The Black Female Body in FrĂ©dĂ©ric Bazille’s Late Oeuvre
  • Chapter Four: Masculinity and the Object of Desire in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Chocolat dansant dans un bar
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Illustrations

Introduction

The juxtaposition of a black woman and white woman in Frédéric Bazille’s canvas, La Toilette [Figure 1], 1870, at first glance seems to uphold normative nineteenth-century conceptions about the separation and hierarchization of the races. The semi-nude kneeling black woman, attired only in a headscarf and multi-colored striped skirt, attends to the seated light skinned female nude who is placed at the center of the composition. Standing to the left of the seated nude is a second female servant with dark eyes and hair, and a sallow complexion. Surprisingly, it is the interchange between the kneeling and seated women that especially commands the viewer’s attention. While one might expect to see the white woman depicted as the principal focus of the pairing, her body is rendered as a limp and generalized form. Yet, the body of the black woman is depicted with specificity and not reduced to a racialized type. Indeed, the skin coloration of the seated female nude in Bazille’s image could be characterized as “blank” whiteness while Bazille imparts an unexpected radiance to the black woman’s skin. Bazille composed the flesh tones of the seated nude woman from a palette of analogous icy whites which contrasts markedly with the array of luminous hues—warm browns, copper, orange, pink, and plum—with which he painted the black woman’s skin. In formal terms, Bazille painted the image of a black woman that was at odds with established social and pictorial traditions by suggesting an aestheticized and a particularized black female body.

Bazille’s image of the black female body in La Toilette is situated at an intersection between mid- to late nineteenth-century French scientific models that established the strategies of defining racial and hierarchical difference and the visual representation of race. Certainly, artists employed multiple strategies for visualizing racial difference during the second half of the nineteenth century, but many producers of visual culture subscribed to the ideology that essential differences separated the human races. In this dissertation, I will show how signs of racial difference in images by Frédéric Bazille, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec evoke ambivalence toward racial identity. I explore how fluid notions of race in late nineteenth-century France are unexpectedly disclosed in these works.

In my examination of representations of constructions of race in late nineteenth-century French visual culture, I have chosen to investigate images of racialized bodies specifically through the lens of hybridity, a term employed by nineteenth-century biologists, natural scientists, and most notably by contemporary cultural historian and postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha to define the intermixing of races and cultures. The fascination with and fear of hybrid races increasingly dominated the nineteenth-century discourse about racial hierarchies and classifications. The images I have selected expand and problematize the notion of hybridity and its antithetical concept of racial purity. “Hybridity … makes difference into sameness, and sameness into difference, but in a way that makes the same no longer the same, the different no longer simply different,” writes Robert J. C. Young in Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. Young distinguishes biological hybridity—inter-racial mixing that produces heterogeneous offspring—from cultural hybridity, which he argues is transformative and irrevocably alters the physical, spatial, and metaphorical separation of two discrete entities. I will explore the concept of hybrid zones as sites where boundaries between absolute difference and sameness are effaced, and contact and interaction result in shifts of identity that dismantle the sense of racial or cultural exclusivity and authenticity.

In this study, I employ both the literal and metaphorical notions of hybridity. Since the requisite for biological hybridity is the intermixing of distinct “races,” my dissertation focuses on racialized populations with which the French had significant contact in the nineteenth century: Negroes and Gypsies. I also interrogate what constituted “whiteness” for the French in the second half of the nineteenth century and how visual culture inscribed, indeed participated in creating, unstable and fluid designations of racial difference for populations of color as well for the “white” Spanish Gypsy by Degas, Manet, Bazille, and Toulouse-Lautrec that expose the unreliability of racist ideologies and articulate the instability of racial categories and stereotypes assigned to racialized populations by many French artists, natural scientists, anthropologists, and writers between 1860 and 1900. I investigate nineteenth-century notions about racial hybridity through the lens of biology and ethnology, but I also expand my study to interrogate hybridity as the cross-fertilization of cultures and identity.

I examine how French representations of the African Caribbean, North and West African black, and Spanish Gypsies visually expressed the anxieties about and fascination with the growing numbers of non-white populations living in France. Colonial expansion in the West Indies and Africa resulted in unions between French colonists and colonized women and the offspring of these interracial relationships elicited concerns about the degradation of the white race and civilization. Within their nation’s borders, the French viewed immigrant populations of blacks from their colonies and itinerant Spanish Gypsies – deemed ethnically distinct from Europeans – with suspicion, derision, and desire. The Negro and Gypsy were simultaneously marked as overtly sexual, primitive, and intellectually inferior. Although the French established a racial hierarchy that affirmed Europeans superior to non-white races, colonialism and immigration inevitably contributed to the dissolution of precise racial boundaries. My dissertation considers the areas where the dominant culture and its perceived inferior intersect and how artists represented those “in-between”6 states of racial and cultural identity…

Read the entire dissertation here.

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