CLEVELAND – The Cleveland Museum of Art has acquired the original plaster model of the celebrated 19th-century sculpture “Why Born Enslaved!” by French sculptor Jean Baptiste Carpeaux.
“Why Born Enslaved!” is the most iconic works of Carpeaux. While there are other versions of the sculpture in museums collections in the United States and Europe, this piece of work is the master model from which other versions were produced.
The museum said the scrapings and marks on the surface of the plaster indicate it was the master model.
The figure in “Why Born Enslaved!” depicts a “bound African woman looking defiantly upward.” Although slavery had been abolished in France since 1848, it remained a contested issue in Carpeaux’s lifetime as France was expanding its colonies in North Africa where the practice continued.
The Cleveland Museum of Art said this acquisition will have an enormous impact on its collection “due to its powerful aesthetic qualities, its formidable stance on one of the most pressing social and political issues of the 19th century and the relevance of its subject today. There is only one other known version with a similar polychromed surface, a half size reduction at the Brooklyn Museum. “
The sculpture will go on view later this spring and the museum said it plans to host complex conversations through artworks.
“By highlighting her place in a global lineage of colonial images of Black women, as well as in the contemporary scholarship and museum practice that seeks to name or otherwise identify sitters like her, the model’s status as both living person and allegorical figure will allow viewers to reckon with the power imbalances that existed even in the creation of abolitionist art, “the museum said.
Two other pieces acquired by the museum include a landscape drawing by Netherlandish artist Hans Bol and a Taihu stone presented to the museum by contemporary Chinese artist Liu Dan.
The work by Bol titled “Balaam and the Ass” was part of a series of biblical stories featuring expansive landscapes and cityscapes. The museum calls the acquisition of this artwork “significant.”
It will be featured in the upcoming exhibition and catalog: Tales of the City: Drawing in the Netherlands from Bosch to Bruegel.
The Taihu Stone, which will be installed in the museum’s Ames Family Atrium besides the bamboo groove later this year, highlights China’s garden culture.
“Similar to other landscape elements, the stones are considered spirited beings in China. Such stones were collected and set up in gardens; smaller examples were placed on scholars’ desks where they evoked miniature mountains,” the museum said.
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