The Negress

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827-1875)

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This expressive bronze is a study for a Parisian monument of the four continents, symbolized by female figures. To represent Africa, Carpeaux chose the tragedy of slavery.

The twisting movement and facial expression of the bound woman are emphasized by the words on the base, "Why be born a slave?"

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

The expressive bronzes and ceramics of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux reveal a sculptor devoted to conveying motion and emotion. Active in Paris during the third quarter of the 19th century, Carpeaux earned several public commissions, including the one for the Opéra building that features his most famous work, the exuberant figure known as The Dance. The Negress relates to Carpeaux's last monumental sculpture project, titled The Four Points of the Globe and designed for the fountain of the Observatoire in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens. To interpret this theme, Carpeaux elected to use four life-size female figures supporting a globe and representing different races and continents.

The Indianapolis bronze is a preparatory work for Africa, presented as a bust rather than a full-length figure. In depicting Africa, Carpeaux emphasized the horrors of slavery, portrayed by a black woman whose breasts and arms are bound by a taut rope. He created the piece in 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War in the United States and only twenty years after slavery was banned in France. Gazing intently to the side, the figure engages in the twisting, turning movement Carpeaux favored and contributes to the circular motion of the fountain's composition. Her lively features express both strength and vulnerability. The exceptionally beautiful patina of this bronze enhances the sculpture's dramatic impact by heightening the play of light and shadow across its surface.

Pourquoi Naître Esclave (Why be born a slave)
-Carpeaux's inscription on the base of The Negress, 1868

Object Information

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827-1875)
creation date
23-3/4 x 16 x 14 in.
accession number
credit line
Martha Delzell Memorial Fund
Public Domain
European Painting and Sculpture 1800-1945

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