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Why Born Enslaved!

The museum acquires a masterpiece
William H. Robinson, Senior Curator of Modern Art
October 30, 2023
Why Born Enslaved!, 1867. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875).  2022.2 

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s stunning sculpture Why Born Enslaved! (1868) is one of the most powerful expressions of abolitionist sentiment in the visual arts. It depicts a woman of African descent bound by ropes and looking defiantly upward. The ropes press into her breasts, and her torn blouse alludes to the violence responsible for her condition. After viewing a version of the work at the Paris Salon of 1869, art critic Théophile Gautier wrote: 

The African woman, with the rope that ties her arms at the back and crushes her breasts, raises to the sky the only thing that is left free to a slave, the eyes, with a look of despair and silent rebuke, a hopeless cry of vindication, a dismal protest against destiny. This is a work of rare vigor, in which ethnographic precision is dramatized through a profound painful feeling.

Carpeaux conceived the sculpture around the same time as his large fountain sculpture, Four Corners of the World Holding the Celestial Sphere (1872), commissioned by Baron Haussmann for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Carpeaux used the same model for the allegorical figure of Africa in the fountain as for Why Born Enslaved! but with an important difference: the broken shackle around her ankle in the fountain sculpture indicates that she is a former slave released from bondage. While the woman’s identity is unknown, archival notes suggest she may have been a former slave from the Antilles who migrated to France after emancipation; a recent study speculates that she may havebeen Louise Kuling, a free woman originally from Virginia.

Why Born Enslaved! is presented with explosive shapes and dramatic silhouettes. The original polychromed surfaces are covered with complex, nuanced hatchings and subtle modeling that enhance the figure’s expressive power. While museums in the United States and Europe own other versions, surface marks and provenance history indicate the CMA’s is the master model from which others were produced. The sharp details and complex polychromed surface, skillfully patinated to convey the model’s ethnicity, support the view that the museum’s recently acquired sculpture is the finest known version of the subject.

Why Born Enslaved! was praised by contemporaries for addressing one of the most pressing issues of its era. Although slavery was abolished in France in 1848, it remained a hotly contested issue in Carpeaux’s time as France expanded its colonies into North Africa, where the practice continued, just as slavery remained legal or tolerated in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. The American Civil War gave additional inspiration to the abolitionist struggle to eradicate the brutal practice. 

With the acquisition of Why Born Enslaved! we have a unique opportunity to recenter Carpeaux’s subject through interpretation and new scholarship. The unnamed model who became the living embodiment of enslavement and whose history and voice are largely lost to the archival record should be the locus of our attention. One way to broaden the context for Carpeaux’s depiction is by looking to other period portraits of Black women to which Carpeaux would certainly have been privy, such as Portrait of Madeleine, originally Portrait d’une femme noire (1800), by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. The change in title is especially notable because it demonstrates the work in progress to identify or otherwise bring to bear the stories of unnamed sitters in the histories we narrate. Through archival research, it was found that Madeleine was a freed woman painted between the first abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1794 and Napoleon’s reinstatement of it in 1804. Why Born Enslaved! provides the CMA an opportunity to bring scholars on the cutting edge of archival research for discussions on the challenges and rewards of such research. 

By highlighting Portrait of Madeleine’s place in a lineage of images of Black women, in contemporary scholarship, and in museum practices that seek to name or otherwise identify sitters like her, and by providing a forum for complex conversations on artworks that provoke painful histories, we will show that we understand the importance of featuring challenging artworks of great historical relevance to reimagine how we see today.