Jean Baptiste Belley by Anne-Louise Girodet, 1797

February 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Very recently much has been made of the still unverified discovery of the other half of Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of The World”. And in my unending quest to detail the rest of the world I offer my thoughts on a lesser known though equally scandalous painting.

This amazing portrait of Jean Baptiste Belley was just recently on display at the American Historical Society, for their show “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn” I was lucky enough to see the portrait, though I was also incredibly disappointed with the way it was installed. The installation of the entire show was terrible, but that is a subject for another day. Anyway in the portrait Belley is resting on the a bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal who wrote A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770). Raynal, a supporter of the abolition of slavery had just died in 1796. He is as much a subject of the portrait as Belley. Raynal stands still in all of his stony dignity, while Belley relaxes against his weight.  Much has been made of Girodet’s depiction of the bulge in Belley’s breeches—and it shouldn’t be taken lightly, it sits at the centerline of the painting and is doubly emphasized by the placement of Belley’s hand. Its significance has been interpreted in a number of ways, perhaps the most interesting interpretation is one that takes the canon of classical penises into account… According to Cecil Adams (Ed Zotti):

According to Kenneth Dover’s landmark study Greek Homosexuality, (1978): (1) Long, thick penises were considered–at least in the highbrow view– grotesque, comic, or both and were usually found on fertility gods, half-animal critters such as satyrs, ugly old men, and barbarians. A circumcised penis was particularly gross. (2) The ideal penis was small, thin, and covered with a long, tapered foreskin. Dover thinks the immature male’s equipment was especially admired, which may account not only for the small size but the scarcity of body hair in classical art. A passage from Aristophanes sums up the most desirable masculine features: “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick.”

…and thus the large penis (at least in the classicized canon that we assume Girodet is following) is a symbol that marks Belley as the still savage, though noble savage. This portrait, if one follows this line of argument then evinces deeply conflicted feelings towards Africans in the age of enlightenment. Belley’s relaxed pose shows not only his dignity but his grace and ease in his position. But was Girodet depicting an ‘animalistic’ side to Belley? It’s difficult to say—and even more difficult because Girodet was a French Romantic and not a Neoclassicist. I will have to consult a few people on this one. That is not to say that French Romantics did not use classical motifs.

More important than these details however are those of Belley’s life. Following the abolition of slavery, Belley continued to campaign for the equal treatment of African-French citizens, whose never fully confirmed rights were constantly under threat. He spoke out forcefully on the equality for French citizens regardless of their race or location within the French Empire. In 1804 Napoleon came to full power and reinstated slavery and Belley was imprisoned, without the benefit of charge or trial. Josephine, it should be remembered was born into a slave owning family in Martinique. More on this soon.


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