The Musee d’Orsay is easily one of my favorite places in Paris. The main collection of impressionist works, spanning everything from Manet to Van Gogh, is beyond compare. And housed in a Beaux Arts train station, the building itself is a work of art. But no place is perfect and one of the side exhibits comes with some troubling undertones. So kids. Let’s talk about art and racism.

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Orientalism

The Musee d’Orsay specializes in art of the 19th century and one of the lesser known movements of the time was Orientalism. Rather than wax poetic on the details, why not let the museum speak for itself? Read their introduction to the exhibit below carefully. There will be a test.

“The Orient, effectively North Africa and Palestine, that inspired dreams throughout the 19th century, did not correspond to a precise geographical area, even though European colonisation and a boom in travel had increased contact with other countries around the Mediterranean. In this context, the relationship to the “Other” was reformulated and became more concrete. In the wake of Delacroix and the Romantics, artists, in their individual styles, were continually redefining the sometimes fantastical images of a foreign culture that satisfied the craving for exoticism of all those who set off in search of unknown lands.

What we call Orientalism, therefore, defines less a category of sculptors and painters, than a desire to describe, idealize even, this often fascinating Elsewhere. The paintings in this room, revealing the great attraction of Algeria, thus move between different themes. From the harem to the religious practices of Islam, the artists’ range reveals a variety of subjects recently discovered through studies of a style of painting that remained forgotten for many years.”

If you’re at all in tune with the anti-racism community, you probably have that sick feeling in your gut. The one that says, “Oh man, this is probably going to wind up being racist…” Spoiler alert: you’re right. But why let our gut feelings drive us? Let’s look at the actual paintings selected for this exhibit.

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Jeune noir a l’epee

This Pierre Puvis de Chavannes painting from 1850 could easily be considered a classic work of Orientalism. This kind of sweeping vista – the likes of which could never be seen in Europe – would have inevitably spoken to the 19th century white man’s desire for Otherness. But it’s here we have to pay very close attention to the exhibit’s introduction. Orientalist paintings did not represent real places. They are purely reflections of white imagination. This is Africa and the Middle East as white people wished it to be. If you can look at those facts and claim such work isn’t incredibly dangerous, you’re living with your head in the sand.

Looking closer at this particular painting, we can see Africa depicted much as it is today – a wasteland filled with violence and poverty. (As a side note, we see here as in many other Orientalist paintings, that the blacker the body, the closer that body appears to the ground.) But here’s a note on Chavannes – there is no evidence he ever left France. Born in Lyon and educated in Paris, Chavannes is imposing his own preconceptions on the canvas.

When we rely on people who are powerful, but uninformed for our education, that education is lacking. Here the harm is a bit more subtle, but in other Orientalist works, the message comes through much more clearly.

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Thamar

This 1875 painting by Alexandre Cabanel is one of many in the Musee d’Orsay’s exhibit that makes sexuality and specifically miscegenation central to Orientalism. One of the things that struck me most about this exhibit was how women were portrayed. Every time, without fail, women in Orientalist works are very fair skinned. It’s as if black women didn’t exist in the 19th century, which I sincerely hope you know is outrageous. Even in works where the woman is not quite as pale as this woman in Thamar, she is always considerably lighter skinned than the man.

How must the Victorian viewer have reacted to this depiction of a white woman, topless and unconscious in the arms of a man? This was a society that had to make special skirts for pianos, because piano legs were considered too offensively phallic! There should be no doubt that images like this fueled and were fueled by racist notions of “dangerous” black sexuality. Non-white men would invariably be perceived as a threat to white women’s virtue.

This gets expressed time and time again in Orientalist paintings.

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La danse mauresque

So far, we’ve looked only at a couple minor works that fit specifically in the school of Orientalism. That being the case, perhaps you feel compelled to dismiss them as outliers. So allow me to burst your bubble.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most famous French painters of the 19th century. Even if you don’t know his name, you probably recognize his distinctively styled paintings of the Moulin Rouge can can girls. In this particular 1895 work, we see not only the dancer, but the audience around her. Toulouse-Lautrec’s technical skill is to be applauded as we can see detailed emotion in every face on the canvas. The particulars of those reactions, however, are troubling.

To the left of the canvas, we see a well-dressed white gentleman react with shock. His eyes are wide and his chin juts out between a down-turned mustache. While his expression leans toward the ridiculous, one might suppose Toulouse-Lautrec is mocking what he represents. But it does still reinforce the image of the white man as one with stricter morals.

Meanwhile, in the top right, we can see a dark-skinned man also watching the show. While it may not come through very clearly in this particular photograph, his expression is one of exaggerated lechery. Every measure possible is taken to mark this man as an Other, from the style of his coat to his turban, to the crystal ball he caresses in his lap. Once again, we see black or brown sexuality singled out.

Why is this a theme we see so often in Orientalist works? The Musee d’Orsay never tells. Instead we have to turn to the ultimate authority on Orientalism, Edward Said. Said says in his seminal 1978 essay:

“Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.

In short, immoral sexuality was one of the easiest ways for Orientalists to discredit their subjects and “prove” that things like money and status only belonged to white men.

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So what?

The final defense an apologist for the arts might have in this context is the sanctuary of the past. The Musee d’Orsay specializes in 19th century art. Obviously, people in the 19th century were racist, but this is the 21st. Surely, we’re past all that now, and it’s safe to look at the racists of days long gone.

Unfortunately, history does not exist in a vacuum. We are still recovering from the wounds of the slave trade. Racism still exists. And – what may be the most shocking to white Americans – it still takes on the same forms we see in these paintings, though they were made well over 100 years ago.

Do you think everywhere in Africa is a desolate, impoverished wasteland? Have you ever passed a black man on the street and assumed he was a threat? Do you think black men are more likely to commit violent crimes? Do you think white women need protection from black men?

When this kind of thinking is still pervasive, viewing works of art like these in any context must carry greater meaning. I was so excited to see an exhibit on Orientalism receive any attention from the Musee d’Orsay when I first picked up my map. It could have easily acknowledged the problems inherent in the artistic tradition, like Said’s Orientalism did for literature. But I think they threw away a huge opportunity and put these paintings on display irresponsibly.

Scroll back up and read their introduction to the exhibit again. Nowhere are politics or morality brought into the matter. Perhaps the curator thought he was being unbiased. But on a subject like this – where so many still stand on the wrong side of history – politics and morality must be at the center of discussion. If it’s not, you allow modern racism to continue by feeding off the racism of the past.

All things considered, I do still highly recommend visiting the Musee d’Orsay. While I think they botched this exhibit, the primary collection of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is the best art collection in Paris.

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And perhaps there is hope yet. In the Musee d’Orsay’s sculpture gallery, far from the Orientalism rooms, you’ll find these three busts by Charles Cordier, spanning 1856-1861. This is the only depiction of a black woman in the entire museum. And it is an exceptionally rare 19th century rendering of black bodies with dignity. Cordier met a former black slave in 1847 and from that moment on focused his entire career on countering the Eurocentric artists who dominated his period. His subjects were real people. Not “Oriental,” but Algerian, Sudanese, based in true geographic places. Cordier himself eventually moved to Africa and died in Algiers in 1905.

So, visit the Musee d’Orsay. Visit all the art museums you can. But when you encounter a depiction of a black person, be a Cordier. View with compassion for the subjects of art and with a skeptical eye of the creator. Skilled as past artists may be, they did not live in a political vacuum.

What else in Paris should you see? Read my recommendations for your Paris itinerary.

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