Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast

March 10th, 2022 - March 5th, 2023
Previously on view at The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 521
Free with Museum admission

Organized around a single object—the marble bust Why Born Enslaved! by French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux—Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast is the first exhibition at The Met to examine Western sculpture in relation to the histories of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and empire.

Created in the wake of American emancipation and some twenty years after the abolition of slavery in the French Atlantic, Why Born Enslaved! was shaped by the enduring popularity of antislavery imagery, the development of nineteenth-century ethnographic theories of racial difference, and France’s colonialist fascination with Africa. The exhibition will explore the sculpture’s place within these contexts.

Featuring more than thirty-five works of art in sections unfolding around Carpeaux’s sculpture, Fictions of Emancipation will offer an in-depth look at portrayals of Black enslavement, emancipation, and personhood with an aim toward challenging the notion that representation in the wake of abolition constitutes a clear moral or political stance. Important works by Josiah Wedgwood, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, Charles Cordier, Edmonia Lewis, Louis-Simon Boizot, and others will show how Western artists of the nineteenth century engaged with the Black figure as a political symbol and site of exoticized beauty, while contemporary sculptures by Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley will connect the dialogue around Carpeaux’s bust to current conversations about the legacies of slavery in the Western world.

This exhibition was conceived in collaboration with guest curator Wendy S. Walters and enriched through conversations with numerous intellectual partners. It is one of many projects that the Museum is undertaking in an effort to reassess and broaden the narratives it presents about the past and present.

Accompanied by a publication.

The exhibition is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Additional support is provided by Allen R. Adler and Frances F. L. Beatty.

The catalogue is made possible by The Met’s Fund for Diverse Art Histories, Mary J. Wallach, Robert E. Holmes, and the Ford Foundation.

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Why Born Enslaved!, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux  French, Marble, French
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, Valenciennes 1827–1875 Courbevoie)
modeled 1868, carved 1873
Antislavery Medallion, Josiah Wedgwood  British, Jasperware, British, Etruria, Staffordshire
Josiah Wedgwood (British, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent 1730–1795 Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent)
William Hackwood (British, ca. 1753–1836)
ca. 1787
Cologne Bottle with Encrusted Antislavery Image, Apsley Pellatt  American, Blown and cut glass with encased sulphide, British
Apsley Pellatt
ca. 1830
Forever Free, Edmonia Lewis  American, Marble, American
Edmonia Lewis (American, 1844–1907)
Africa, from Allegories of the Four Continents, Fulda Pottery and Porcelain Manufactory  German, Hard-paste porcelain, German, Fulda
Fulda Pottery and Porcelain Manufactory (German, 1764–1789)
After a design by Johann Andreas Herrlein (1720–1796)
Allegory of Africa, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi  French, Bronze, French
Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (French, Colmar 1834–1904 Paris)
modeled ca. 1863–64
Woman from the French Colonies, Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier  French, Algerian onyx-marble, bronze, enamel, amethyst; white marble socle, French, Paris
Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (French, 1827–1905)
Pedestal attributed to designs by Charles-François Rossigneux (French, 1818–afer 1909)
Negress, Kara Walker  American, Plaster, American
Kara Walker (American, born Stockton, California, 1969)

Latest reviews

…the fullest examination ever staged of [Carpeaux’s] iconic sculpture.

The Guardian

. . . [an] investigative show, creating a template that could have far-reaching applications for a critical rethinking of [The Met’s] permanent collection displays.

The New York Times

. . . a small but potent show.


. . . elegant, essayistic show. . . delivers powerful lessons without foreclosing interpretation or inquiry. . . .

The New Yorker

. . . a piercing exhibition. . . with an abundance of scholarship and critical thought.

Financial Times
Marquee: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875). Why Born Enslaved! (detail), modeled 1868, carved 1873. Marble, H. 22 7/8 in. (58.1 cm), W. 16 in. (40.6 cm), D. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Wrightsman Fellows, and Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation Gifts, 2019 (2019.220)