main image
Why Born Enslaved!
by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
modeled 1868, carved 1873
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Wrightsman Fellows, and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation Gifts, 2019
Episode 11 / 2019
First Look

It is critical to reckon with the power imbalance enacted when a white male artist transposes the body of a black woman into an emblem of enslavement."

Why Born Enslaved! was first conceived in 1868 by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, one of the greatest French sculptors of the nineteenth century. The bust portrays a woman straining against a rope pulled taut around her arms, back, and breast. Her shoulders project forward and the right tendon of her neck protrudes as she twists her body in one direction and turns her head sharply in the other. The figure's defiant, uplifted gaze extends her spiraling movement and conveys her perseverance through pain as the work's rhetorical title, inscribed on the sculpture’s base, proclaims, "Pourquoi Naitre Esclave!"

The suffering on display in this bust is rooted in the harsh reality of slavery. The figure's bound flesh recalls the history of stolen African people whose bodies were scrutinized, handled, and sold at auction. This humanized portrayal of an enslaved woman's resistance has often been interpreted as an expression of Carpeaux's stance against slavery. But Carpeaux's naturalistic rendering of his model's pained expression is at odds with his romanticized vision of her struggle for freedom. The result is a disturbing fantasy of aestheticized bondage—the transformation of human carnage into erotically-charged drama.

The identity of the woman who posed for Carpeaux is unknown, although an archival note indicates she may have been the same model who posed for Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier's Woman from the French Colonies. In viewing this image of her likeness, it is critical to reckon with the power imbalance enacted when a white male artist transposes the body of a black woman into an emblem of enslavement.

Carpeaux debuted his first marble version of Why Born Enslaved! at the Paris Salon in 1869, four years after the close of the American Civil War and two decades following the 1848 abolition of slavery in the French colonies. Following its exhibition, the bust became an object of middle-class consumption through its reproduction in plaster and terracotta. The sculpture typifies the continuation of anti-slavery imagery in the post-abolition era, but it undoubtedly also appealed to that period's taste for objectifying depictions of non-Europeans that reinforced a social hierarchy. In the historical context of late nineteenth-century French colonialism, wherein the bodies of African women were objects of intense fascination, the sculpture's mixed messages accommodated the views of those who opposed slavery but participated in empire.

Today, this image continues to proliferate and provoke. One of only two marbles ever produced, the sculpture acquired by The Met invites close looking, critical discussion, and crucial reflection on the power dynamics at play in the representations of black people in Western art.

Watch a video featuring Wendy S. Walters reciting a poem she wrote in response to the sculpture and questions that arise regarding its model’s agency.

Sarah Lawrence
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge
European Sculpture and Decorative Arts
Elyse Nelson
Assistant Curator
European Sculpture and Decorative Arts
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