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Until the 19th century, artistic depictions of black women by European artists were rare. Often they were relegated to the background as domestic attendants to European noblewomen, serving as symbols of the latter’s colonial wealth and further provide contrast with the darkness of their skin against the aristocratic fairness of their white mistresses. The transition into the 19th century was a turbulent period in European history, especially for France, as the country saw multiple revolts and governmental changes at home. Simultaneously colonization overseas continued to expand, creating previously unheard-of access to foreign cultures and ideas.

Black women became an interesting subject of analysis within French art during this century, as their place at the bottom of the racial and gender hierarchy created a unique opportunity for artists to create a forum through which they could explore the conflict between French perceptions of the inherent inferiority of the colonized Other against their ideas of what it meant to be a modern nation with an increasingly diversifying population. This paper seeks to examine how the socio-cultural changes brought by French colonization efforts in the 19th century influenced key works by three continental artists - Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Charles Cordier, and Frédéric Bazille- that reimagined new ways of portraying the black female body over the course of the century.