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Portraiture, revolutionary, identity and subjucation: Anne-Louis Girodet’s citizen Belley Musto, Sylvia S.

Abstract

During the French Revolution, portraiture played an important role in the forging of identities for the new ruling class. In my thesis I will examine a portrait painted in 1797by Anne-Louis Girodet of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a black who held a position as deputy to the French National Assembly forth colony of Saint Domingue, between the years 1794 to 1797. Slavery was abolished in France in 1794. Girodet's portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley has been seen by both contemporary and later critics as a celebration of the abolition of slavery, and as symbolizing the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty and equality. However, the portrait also highlights the underlying controversy which the Revolutionaries faced: how to reconcile the Declaration of the Rights of Man with the firmly stated commitment of the Revolutionary government to uphold a colonial empire. The French had declared the abolition of slavery because they needed the slaves to form an army for the defense of the colony of Saint Domingue, which was threatened by military attacks from the British and the Spanish. Hence, with the abolition of slavery, there was created a new black military ruling class in Saint Domingue. Considering the powerful position of the blacks in Saint Domingue, there were fears in France that the colony, with the support of the British, might declare its independence. With the changing status of blacks, from slaves to French if citizens and soldiers, and with the growing uncertainty about French rule in Saint Domingue, Girodet was faced with the task of creating the image of a new black citizen, and of mediating that image in terms of the anti-Jacobin, conservative mood of the Directory, and in terms of the threat embodied in the black military leaders. In Girodet's portrait, Belley is included in a French Revolutionary elite; he is represented as a reassuring, non-threatening representative of the colonies. However, Girodet also conveys Belley's position as an outsider, whose marginality and difference is epitomized in the portrait itself. I will argue in my thesis that Girodet's portrait ofBelley represents and defines a racial hierarchy which could justify the continuation of colonialism and the subordination of blacks, and I will try to show how Girodet represents this hierarchy by a subtle manipulation of the imagery, rhetoric and myth which had been used to define power during the French Revolution.

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