Posing Modernity

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The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today

Denise Murrell


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An ambitious and revelatory investigation of the black female figure in modern art, tracing the legacy of Manet through to contemporary art

This revelatory study investigates how changing modes of representing the black female figure were foundational to the development of modern art. Posing Modernity examines the legacy of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), arguing that this radical painting marked a fitfully evolving shift toward modernist portrayals of the black figure as an active participant in everyday life rather than as an exotic “other.” Denise Murrell explores the little-known interfaces between the avant-gardists of nineteenth-century Paris and the post-abolition community of free black Parisians. She traces the impact of Manet’s reconsideration of the black model into the twentieth century and across the Atlantic, where Henri Matisse visited Harlem jazz clubs and later produced transformative portraits of black dancers as icons of modern beauty. These and other works by the artist are set in dialogue with the urbane “New Negro” portraiture style with which Harlem Renaissance artists including Charles Alston and Laura Wheeler Waring defied racial stereotypes. The book concludes with a look at how Manet’s and Matisse’s depictions influenced Romare Bearden and continue to reverberate in the work of such global contemporary artists as Faith Ringgold, Aimé Mpane, Maud Sulter, and Mickalene Thomas, who draw on art history to explore its multiple voices.
Featuring over 175 illustrations and profiles of several models, Posing Modernity illuminates long-obscured figures and proposes that a history of modernism cannot be complete until it examines the vital role of the black female muse within it.

Denise Murrell is curator, Posing Modernity exhibition, and Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.


Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York

Musée dOrsay

“What distinguishes Posing Modernity is its understanding of reframing beauty as black women perform it specifically for painters and photographers. It is a striking book, a remarkable read.”—Deborah Willis, New York University, Tisch School of the Arts

“Two decades ago, few areas of art history seemed as exhausted, if not overstudied as late-19th-century French painting. But new ideas and approaches change everything. Thus we have Posing Modernity — the catalog to the exhibition.”—Roberta Smith, New York Times

 “[a] lavish exhibition catalogue.”—David Carrier, Hyperallergic

“Often overlooked in the history of western Modernism, the black female figure was in fact central to the development of modern art. A new book by Denise Murrell Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today (2018) reasserts the importance of these women” —Frieze News Desk

“[a] compelling and beautifully made volume”— Michele Valerie Ronnick, caa.reviews

Finalist for the 2019 PROSE awards, art exhibitions category

Winner of the 2019 Exhibition Catalogue Award, sponsored by the Dedalus Foundation

Winner of the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions, sponsored by the College Art Association
ISBN: 9780300229066
Publication Date: November 27, 2018
Publishing Partner: Published in association with the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University in the City of New York
224 pages, 9 x 10 1/4
177 color illus.