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Why Born Enslaved!

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

European Art

On View:
The identity of the Black woman who posed for this sculpture is unknown, but recent scholarship suggests that she might have been born into slavery in the French Antilles and, following her emancipation, migrated to France. Created twenty years after France abolished slavery in 1848, and only three years following emancipation in the United States in 1865, the bust was meant to appeal to the antislavery views of a progressive white audience. Yet despite its sensitive portrayal of an individual, the bust nonetheless objectifies the Black female body as an exoticized other, her single bare breast a symbol of both liberty and colonial fantasy.

This woman was also the model for the allegorical figure of Africa on a large fountain representing the four continents that Carpeaux designed for a park in Paris. This plaster is one of the independent sculptures he made based on that figure.
MEDIUM Plaster with patina; red stone base
  • Place Made: France
  • DATES 1868
    DIMENSIONS sculpture: 13 3/4 × 9 1/4 × 7 in. (34.9 × 23.5 × 17.8 cm) base: 9 × 12 1/2 × 12 1/2 in. (22.9 × 31.8 × 31.8 cm) weight with base: 43.5 lb. (19.73kg) mount: 14 × 9 × 7 1/2 in. (35.6 × 22.9 × 19.1 cm)  (show scale)
    INSCRIPTIONS Incised back of plaster base: "J-B Carpeaux 1868" Incised on front of base: "Pourquoi nâitre esclave"
    COLLECTIONS European Art
    ACCESSION NUMBER 1993.83a-b
    CREDIT LINE Gift of Benno Bordiga, by exchange and Mary Smith Dorward Fund
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CAPTION Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875). Why Born Enslaved!, 1868. Plaster with patina; red stone base, sculpture: 13 3/4 × 9 1/4 × 7 in. (34.9 × 23.5 × 17.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Benno Bordiga, by exchange and Mary Smith Dorward Fund, 1993.83a-b. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1993.83a-b_edited_SL3.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 1993.83a-b_edited_SL3.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2015
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    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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