Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Slavery, Property and Sexuality: The Visual Commodification of the Black Female Subject in Western Art

Dr Charmaine Nelson.

Portrait of a Negro Slave (1786) is a rare, early oil painting of a black female slave. The subject is represented holding a plate of fruit in front of a lush and romanticized tropical landscape. This painting is significant to a reading of the slave body as commodity for four key reasons: 1) it represents an historic individual as opposed to an idealized type, (2) it is possibly the only preserved and almost undoubtedly the most thorough and professionally rendered representation of a black slave in Canada at this historical juncture (3) it offers an unparalleled opportunity to explore the specific colonial context of slavery in eighteenth-century North America (New France) and (4) it confirms the visibility and legibility of the racialized body as the means of identifying a slave. This last aspect is perhaps the most pressing since it is this visual confirmation which allowed for the legally sanctioned commodification of a human life.

Painted by François Malépart de Beaucourt, a white, French male who is often hailed as Canada’s first “native”-born artist, the obvious racial implications of this work and its colonial context of production have often been suppressed in favour of a purely aesthetic or biographical reading within the eurocentric discourses of western art history. Informed by a post-colonial feminist methodology, this paper will explore the ways in which visual representations of black female slaves within western culture participated within the colonial discourses of the body and sexuality wherein the visual legibility of race was a key factor in the designation of the slave body.


Dr Charmaine Nelson  (Australia)
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Arts
McGill University

My research and teaching interests include: Canadian, American and European Art (19th and 20thc.), critical theory, Slavery Studies, Postcolonial Studies and Black Feminism.

  • Slavery
  • Women
  • Commodification
  • Race/Racism
  • Portraiture
  • Canadian/Western Art
  • Postcolonial
  • Black Feminism

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)