Rethinking Girodet’s Portrait of Citizen Belley
I have grown accustomed to working in research libraries. I take a seat in a back corner of the reading room, adjust the lamp, and open up a blank document for note taking. I recently visited one such library to find books and other archival documents regarding Anne-Louis Girodet‘s Portrait of Citizen Belley (1797). The painting portrays two subjects: Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) and Guillaume-Thomas Raynal (1713-1796) in a moment that never existed in history.
Although both figures lived in the eighteenth century, it is unlikely that they knew of each other. At a young age, Belley found himself in the Caribbean as a slave. He eventually achieved liberation through military service and became a high-ranking military officer. Belley maneuvered legal loopholes and politics, altering his social status from one of inferiority to one that he (and others) considered more respectable. Meanwhile, Raynal resided in Europe, several thousand miles away from Belley. Earning his reputation from a unique stance on emancipation, he feared that the continuation of slavery would precipitate violent revolts. Hence, he suggested that slaves should be emancipated before they became violent towards their “Western” masters.
We are often taught, as art historians, that it is our duty to reconstruct moments from the past. But in doing so, we must be sure to consider a variety of interpretations of that past. Girodet’s Portrait of Citizen Belley cannot be classified as an entirely historical or ahistorical painting. Although one may argue that Girodet’s representation of Belley and Raynal highlights their mutual standing as social pariahs, their similarities end there. As art historian Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby eloquently remarks, “Girodet did not want us to miss what he proposed as the powerful bedrock truth of the racial binary of black and white.” Here, the composition’s formal techniques and subject matter can become just as significant as texts from the archive. The composition of this painting encourages viewers to create a comparison between the figures. Some of the most striking dichotomies include: statue versus human, emancipated slave versus French philosopher, white versus dark skin tone, as well as age versus youth. These contrasts can be understood in the context of eighteenth century racial taxonomies that would have separated figures by social class.
Differentiating categories such as “European,” “non-European,” “slave,” and “freed man” are also often used in attempts to make sense of the history of slavery. But, in doing so, we sometimes obscure the lives of individuals. These constructed binaries hamper the ability to account for the variety of interpretations. This may have happened in the case of this painting. Belley cuts across many of these dichotomies and Raynal cannot simply be remembered as a supporter of emancipation. While Raynal believed in granting non-Europeans more rights, he may also have held such beliefs from a position of fear. Such categories, therefore, can often fail to reflect the complexities of lived experiences.
It is important to note that this composition may evoke other themes as well. Turning to biography, some art historians have been intrigued by Girodet’s depiction of sexuality. For example, Belley’s exaggerated phallus has promoted a “queer” reading of this painting, causing James Smalls and Whitney Davis to reflect upon Girodet’s own homosexuality. Discussions around Girodet and depictions of gender entanglement in his paintings have persisted.
The Portrait of Citizen Belley reaches towards the status of a historical painting without actually ever becoming one. The power of Girodet’s painting, in this sense, may not come entirely from its ability to recount one particular moment (especially because that moment never existed). Rather, it may come from its ability to portray two seemingly opposing figures who mark two seemingly different historical moments. Girodet depicts these figures to point towards a series of events and cultural ideologies.
This painting refers to the respective biographies of Belley and Raynal, without fully embodying them. It is especially noticeable in the depiction of Raynal. While he lived not significantly earlier than Belley, Raynal’s portrayal as a bust clearly suggests that he pre-dated Belley. For those familiar with art history, this is a clear reference to the classical tradition. It was not uncommon for ancient Romans to utilize busts to portray wiser and older leaders. Raynal’s bust is also complimented by an engraving in all capital letters that further adds an antique, relic-like quality. The relationship between Raynal and his bust as well as the relationship between Raynal and Belley is highly ambiguous.
Rendering Raynal (and not Belley) as an antique bust does not imply social inferiority. If anything, it may serve to represent Raynal with a heightened sense of nobility. Likewise, depicting Belley not as a bust, but rather as a living aristocratic figure could be understood as a parody or as valorization. In the early nineteenth century, French priest and revolutionary Henri Grégoire (1750-1831) could find no evidence to support ideas of a “moral correctness” around race in European rule, but many of Girodet’s European viewers may still have understood Belley’s composure as a form of arrogance. If, however, Girodet was celebrating Belley’s dignity in this painting, it would help to reinforce Grégoire’s suggestions. This composition’s meaning is by no means static or fixed.
Girodet’s illusion of multiple temporalities establishes this different kind of historical accuracy. It implies that these different historical moments overlap and that interpretations change over time. These are also affected by the viewer’s own cultural context. Raynal’s existence as a French philosopher is evoked through the whiteness of the statue and the connotation of age as wisdom. But, the painting also gives Raynal the literal identity of the classical bust, creating two quite different identities: a bust of antiquity and a promoter of emancipation. The bust can be thought of as a type of mask that filters Raynal’s true identity, but we might also read this as a literal depiction of passing time, and cultural change.
Dealing with the past
In light of these numerous and conflicting interpretations, how might we perceive Girodet’s painting today? Moving between our lived experiences in the present, and trying to understand those of the past, can be a confusing business. As Mieke Bal points out, we do not always “recreate” the past; sometimes, we “deal with it.” “Dealing with” the past might offer a way to understand how temporalities can overlap. Metaphorically speaking, the stance of Belley demonstrates how we (and also Girodet) lean on the past, without completely touching or embracing it. The Roman bust of Raynal might also point towards the difficulty of “recovering” the past. Considering the bust as a mask suggests a disguised Raynal (and, perhaps, a less “natural” self). The bust also recognizes that these figures probably didn’t meet, but that they continue to exist in memory.
Memory often obscures context and chronology. The mask of the bust (the earlier temporal moment) is what viewers perceive before understanding Raynal’s actual identity. Likewise, viewers see Belley through his clothing. Such masks block or suppress the trauma of these earlier moments. Imagine peeling away the facades from both figures. When the veneer of the Raynal’s bust or Belley’s apparel is removed, both figures are reverted to unmediated representations of their inherent selves. In this state, both figures would exist in their respective moments, enabling us to recall the horrors of the French Revolution and the long road to emancipation. Perhaps, Girodet depicts a relationship that was never forged and utilizes the “masks” of statuary and uniform to suggest that the past may never be fully recoverable. This painting reminds us that memorializing figures through race, gender, and status does not always account for the slippages and fluctuations of individuality. The clothes and bust also serve to obscure the identities of both figures. Such foils impede and suppress our ability to actually “know” the lives of Belley and Raynal. Recalling the writings of Jacques Lacan, both the apparel and bust remind us that our perceptions of these figures are always mediated by other events and ideologies. I am doubtful if we can ever fully come to terms with our historical past.
This painting’s inherent value as a historical document enables—to a degree—both past and present spectators to “deal with” the past. More specifically, it asks viewers to account for figures who do not conform to their culturally prescribed identities. We cannot fully recover their lives, but we can “deal with” them by acknowledging the stickiness of history. As twenty-first century viewers, we are able to bring our own lived experiences into contact with both the subjects of this painting, and to the cultural world of the artist. We may not be able to entirely recover the past, but we can begin to deal with the harsh consequences of slavery by acknowledging the moments that overlap. These overlaps happen the moment we look at this painting.
Featured Image: Anne-Louis Girodet, Autoportrait (Self-portrait), 1900s. Detail. PD-Art.
Michael H. Feinberg is a doctoral student studying French nineteenth-century painting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current research interests include queer theory and depictions of race, gender, and corpses. Website. Contact.