Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman (1800) as Tête d’Éxpression
Is Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman (1800) an affirmational portrait of an individual? Or is it a vehicle for a racially-charged stereotype? I argue that the painting is suspended between these possibilities, largely because Benoist was trying to represent a newly acknowledged category of person: the Black female citizen. The painting’s ambiguities—its strange combination of physical specificity with generalization or typology—stem from the lack of precedents for the depiction of a free, equal Black woman. This brings me to my second contention: that Benoist turned to the genre of the tête d’expression (“expressive head”) as a way to represent her sitter. Developed by painter and theorist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the tête d’expression is a sub-genre related to history painting. Straddling portraiture and history painting, the tête d’expression was a crucial tool for artists to practice depicting a range of different facial expressions. The genre was also, at this time, particularly associated with women artists, who used it to demonstrate their mastery of human physiognomy and anatomy, and to display their skill without appearing overly ambitious or indecorous. I argue that by changing the identification of this painting from a “portrait” to a “tête d’expression,” we can better understand the tensions between allegory and specificity in Portrait of a Black Woman. In turn, this furthers our understanding of Benoist’s ambitions and inventiveness as a female artist.