Serving Exoticism: The Black Female in French Exotic Imagery, 1733-1885

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The black female played an important part in the construction of exotic female sexuality in French painting for nearly two hundred years, yet her symbolic complexity has not been fully explored. This thesis is a contextual analysis of the image of the black female in French painting from the early part of the eighteenth through the nineteenth century. Representations of black females in this era are part of the larger development of turquerie in the eighteenth century and Orientalism in the nineteenth century. Centered around European fantasies of Near Eastern and North African harem culture, turquerie and Orientalism provided an exotic framework in which issues of female sexuality and its relationship to race was explored. The objects discussed in this thesis, primarily well known works by academic painters, are examples of images in which the black female plays a significant stylistic and ideological role. The works are examined in relation to literary and scientific discourses in which ideas about black women were negotiated during the period. Slavery, imperialism, as well as colonial expansion contextualize the imagery, and offer tools with which to uncover encoded meanings inscribed in the exoticized black female. This analysis provides an expanded definition of the nature of the black female as a symbol, and outlines a complex, multidimensional framework in which black female figures operate as a sexual signifier.