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Painting the Unseen: Addressing Black Representation in European Paintings

By: Isabella Springett


Edouard Manet - Olympia, 1863. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt. Source.

A shift has taken place in the world of art and academia, prompting critical questions about the representation of Black individuals in European paintings. Museums and scholars are exploring the erasure of Black lives from these visual narratives, challenging historical context and the impact of colonialism. In this article I am addressing these themes, aiming to shed light on ideologies and untold stories by analyzing Archibald McLauchlan’s painting, John Glassford and his Family, 1764-1766.

Hidden Narratives

During the 18th century, Europe was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade, and many Black people were enslaved to aristocratic families (Erickson, 1993). Despite their presence in these homes, Black artistic representation was problematic in Europe and, when viewed critically, offers a multifaceted view of history, power, and social transformation.

John Glassford and his Family by Archibald McLauchlan is part of the Glasgow Museums' permanent collection. Gifted to the museum in 1950, not much was known about the work other than the myth surrounding the black enslaved boy positioned behind John Glassford (Lewis, 2018). It was thought that he’d been painted over to hide the family's involvement in the slave trade (Lewis, 2018). However, the rumour was dismissed in 2007 as the painting received conservation treatment revealing that the boy had been obscured due to centuries of dirt (Lewis, 2018).

The inclusion of slaves in wealthy family portraiture was considered ‘fashionable’ and served as a sign of strength and authority (Alexander, 1994). The boy's presence contributes to the ‘othering’ of Black bodies in this time period (Welsby, 2019), stemming from two scientific understandings (Meisenhelder, 2003).

  1. According to Meisenhelder, “polygenists” of the time argued that Africans represented a distinct biological species and were inferior to white Europeans (Meisenhelder, 2003).

  2. African bodies were also considered more sexual, and thus less morally good (Meisenhelder, 2003, p.104). The colour black became understood as a symbol of their moral inferiority to white Europeans (Meisenhelder, 2003).

Therefore, the boy represented the visible-invisible, a trophy servant, not considered a person but an object to the Glassford family. This symbolization ultimately contributes to the bigger picture, where optically, painting slaves in family portraiture displays the family's prestige and wealth.

Archibald McLauchlan, John Glassford and his Family, 1767-68. Glasgow Museums Collection. Source.
Detail of the Black enslaved boy, John Glassford and his Family, Glasgow Museums Collection. Source.

The Turning Point

In the nineteenth century, European art contrasted with America’s, differing in the way black figures were depicted. Instead of racist caricatures, the European representation of Black people was considered to be beautiful, romantic, and enticing. This can be seen in Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portait présumé de Madeleine, which is viewed as a masterpiece. The model is painted in silks, elegantly posed with a serene look in her eyes (Waller 2018). Far from the ideals of the century, this work unveils anti-slavery and feminist underpinnings (Waller 2018).

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portait présumé de Madeleine, 1800. © 2021 RMN-Grand Palais / Mathieu Rabeau. Source.

Thankfully, as we have become more progressive, many institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay in the exhibition “Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse” and the exhibit “The Black Figure in European Imaginary” at the Rollins Museum of Art are highlighting the aesthetic, political, social, and racial issues of Black figures in visual art (Musée d’Orsay, 2019).

As we strive for more inclusive and accurate representation of diverse voices in the art world, institutions need to view their collections critically, acknowledging their history while also highlighting the work's shortcomings. By understanding the foundations of our culture(s) and the social contexts that collections affect and exist within, museums can give a voice to those who were previously silenced or marginalized.

If you are interested in learning more, check out these resources!

Further Reading

Alexander, K. (1994). Representation. Paragraph 17(3), 260–265.

Bedworth, C. (2022, May 27). Enslaved Black Models in European Art: Anonymous Objects.

Erickson, P. (1993). Representations of Blacks and Blackness in the Renaissance. Criticism,

Lewis, A. (2018, August 14). John Glassford’s Family Portrait. Legacies of Slavery in Glasgow

Meisenhelder, T. (2003). African Bodies: “Othering” the African in Precolonial Europe. Race,

Gender & Class, 10(3), 100–113.

Musée d’Orsay. (2019). Black models: from Géricault to Matisse. https://www.musee-

Rollins Museum of Art. (2017). The Black Figure in the European Imaginary.

Waller, S. (2018, September 18). Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine.

Welsby, A. (2019, August 12). The Glassford Family Portrait and Cultural Value. Andrew


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