Yee on Grigsby (2022)

Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo. Creole: Portraits of France’s Foreign Relations During the Long Nineteenth Century. Pennsylvania State UP, 2022, pp. xv + 352, ISBN 978-0-271-09154-9

At the heart of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s latest book is the slippery term “creole,” which also figures as its title, followed by a punning subtitle. “Foreign Relations” here refers less to geopolitics than to the various, usually illegitimate, blood links between the French and their creole families. Beginning with disconcerting anecdotes, brief glimpses of the lives of “sang-mêlé” or “colored” people, the book goes on to explore the racial indeterminacy of the term “creole,” which primarily indicates birthplace rather than any real or perceived physical identity. The openness of this “generous and ambiguous term” (6), has however the effect of leading to a search for racial signs, identifiers within a hold-all geographical category, which would allow nineteenth-century viewers to seek to identify a contrast between creole and metropolitan identity. Grigsby’s exploration of creolity in some of its many forms responds to what she identifies as a critical failure to acknowledge the difference between black Black and mixed-race experience.

This is a book with a remarkable degree of narrative drive for a work of non-fiction. Apparently meandering plotlines bring us back, skilfully, to the point in each case. Grigsby pays close attention to individual, and above all familial, narratives set against the backdrop of broader history, but also to painterly effects, the play of tone and texture, and the overlooked details of art objects and their histories. Each of the nine chapters explores a different case, with a focus on art history, but drawing on broader history, literature, and contemporary diaries and letters. They offer us multiple fleeting glimpses into a shadowy world of half-lost stories, revealing ghost doubles of well-known characters and the ambiguities of semi-racialization. For example, we revisit the empress Joséphine as a creole herself, her racial purity implicitly further cast into doubt by the existence of her mixed-race half-sister. Herself a slave-owner, Joséphine’s nephew was the mixed-race abolitionist campaigner Cyrille Bissette.

As in the case of Joséphine de Beauharnais, many of these stories raise specters of doubling. The story of Fortunée Hamelin is one of substitution between half-sisters, one legitimate and “white,” one illegitimate and mixed-race. These are again and again stories of white fathers and black Black mothers, haunted by the possibilities of incest as well as miscegenation: how to be sure who is related to whom, when the children of one father “come out” looking so different?

A fascinating chapter on Haiti’s “ancestors” follows the life story of the mixed-race painter Lethière, exploring the circumstances in which he chose to paint the revolutionary “Oath of the Ancestors” (1822). The much more recent mishaps and restorations of that painting are evoked in a coda to the present volume. Grigsby revisits this picture, the subject of some of her earlier work, in a narrative full of unexpected plot twists and questions within questions. Against his own vested interests, Lethière appears to take sides for the Haitian revolution against the French restoration. No wonder he had the painting delivered clandestinely as a gift to the (as yet unrecognised) Haitian Republic. His own son accompanied it in person, with a letter from the Abbé Grégoire introducing him as one who, despite his “European” complexion, wishes to be welcomed to a new homeland (in fact Lethière père had left Guadeloupe, not Haiti, at the age of fourteen). This extraordinary painting is like a foundational statement for the Republic, proclaiming the unity of Black and mixed-race peoples, and the rule of Law, as the basis for true liberty. It is also like an altar piece, with an ice-white God descending to offer recognition from the ultimate white master. Grigsby unpacks the ambiguities of the painting, as well as the complex familial story behind Lethière’s creation, in an account that reads like a detective story, exploring illegitimacy and an inheritance contested despite belated paternal recognition. Here, as in the rest of the book, we see how anxieties about illegitimacy as well as racialisation haunted mixed-race families. The historical Dessalines—portrayed as heroic and youthful in Lethière’s painting, though actually a much more problematic character whose true history is still being worked out—got round this with the proposal that color-blindness could be achieved by everyone in the Republic being declared Black.

Another chapter begins with Théodore Chassériau, as a prodigiously talented 16-year-old, taking a commission from Ingres to make an oil sketch, from life, of the Black model Joseph; Ingres wanted to use this as a basis for a painting he never completed, in which the Black man would embody the devil, but he didn’t tell either artist or model what it was for. We then embark on an exploration of Chassériau’s own origins as a mixed-race Creole painter, born in Haiti to a family in which impecunious white men married women “of color” for their dowries. Grigsby’s narrative also fleshes out some of what we know about the model Joseph, one of the stars of the 2019 Black Models exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay.

Grigsby, though primarily a historian of visual and material cultures, is extremely attentive to the ambiguities of words, beginning as we saw with the central term “creole,” so that there are several layers to her reflection on colors. She explores the difficulties of describing white creoles verbally: they are “pale” but lack color—that is pink, blushing tints—so that “true” or metropolitan whiteness is paradoxically understood in terms of color. She sees the notional color-blindness of a “métis” ideal as a form of denial, pointing, in contrast, to the colonial fantasy in which the white male is the only father of the creole population—a fantasy in which Black men, and men of color, have no role. This reflection on color in racialization is accompanied by observations on painting itself: Delacroix’s transgressive juxtaposition of unblended colors, at the time when he was painting The Massacre at Chios, is also in evidence in the contrasting colors used to depict the skin of a mixed-race woman in two portraits of Aspasie, 1824. Grigsby lingers over Chassériau’s beautiful and haunting portrait of his sisters, a near doubling that invites the viewer to detect tiny differences of skin tone.

Caricature is discussed alongside “serious” art, notably in the satirical portrayal of Faustin Soulouque, Emperor of Haiti 1849–59, as a Black double of Napoléon III. One should note, too, the peculiar privilege of Alexandre Dumas, of whom more caricatures were published than of any other writer. This may be because caricaturists found it easy to use simplistic racialized traits for the mixed-race writer, but it did give Dumas remarkable public prominence, compensating for the paucity of painted portraits of him, and not all of it was hostile. The exploration of the Dumas family includes some discussion of his father, the brilliant General Dumas, whose decision it was to take the name of his Black slave mother rather than his aristocratic white father.

Grigsby’s discussion of Manet points to the initial blindspot of critics who neglected the figure of the Black maid in Olympia (1863). For her, the presence of the maid links the painting to French slavery and its abolition in 1848, rather than to Orientalist tropes. A second chapter on Manet explores his multiple portrayals of the execution of the emperor Maximilian following the abortive French attempt to install a client empire in Mexico. These do not, in fact, show Maximilian’s death, or that of the Creole general Miguel Miramón, both of whom seem untouched, even indifferent, to the firing squad: they portray the dramatic and violent death of the indigenous Mexican General Tomás Mejía. Manet whitened the men in the firing squad and made them look more French, and the painting was censored by Napoleon III so that, as Grigsby argues, this is a painting of white France shooting a brown Mexican. A final chapter, perhaps less obviously creole in its focus, looks at Degas’stay with his (white) cousins in New Orleans, movingly discussing his portraits of his cousin Estelle, grieving, pregnant and going blind, before moving on to his later use of dark silhouettes.

This is a book that would have benefitted from some more attentive copyediting in places. For example, Chassériau’s passport description gives his height “translated” into American measurements (5 ft. 8 in.), but the original metric measurement is also included and mis-transcribed, making him only 74 cm tall (122). There are errors in French transcriptions, such as “la caractère industrielle [sic]” for a caption that mentions “le caractère industriel” (220). Balzac’s racist denigration of Dumas is unfortunately translated as “It’s a nègre” (173), where he presumably wrote “C’est un…”, using the French impersonal form: the reference is still pejorative, but less dehumanizing. There are repeated uses of the expression “portrait chargé” instead of “portrait-charge” (a caricature) (e.g. 179–80). Nevertheless, it feels ungrateful to quibble over details in a work that is at once so enjoyable to read and so thought-provoking, as well as being lavishly illustrated with well selected and thoroughly analyzed images.