Portrait d’une négresse, Marie Guillemine Benoist, 1800
The portrait probably represents a person who really existed, though we have no information about her. The artist didn’t give her name, but the model is wearing the headscarf of the maids in the Antilles.
This Black woman is depicted in an unsual way for her condition of domestic, if not slave. The gaze directly facing the viewers, sat on a chair, wrapped in a rich fabric, she occupies the White woman’s place. Her position is similar to many high society lady’s painted by David, such as Madame Récamier’s that David painted the same year.
The painting emphasizes her skin colour, by the contrast with the white sheet and the clear background. But the artist makes her beautiful, while such a subject would have seen as ugly at the end of 18th century.
The painting is indeed audacious, by the way it depicts a Black person and the role assigned to women in art. It also shows that Marie Guillemine Benoist, who lived through the Revolution, was aware of the importance of sex, race, and social class questions when France was entering modernity.
There is a more developped analysis of the painting, focused on the depiction of race and gender in the painting. You can find it here
It is thought that this woman is a maid from the Caribbean, working for Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s brother-in-law. The blue scarf, the white dress and the red ribbon are a reminder of the french flag, and also remind that, after the french Revolution, french nationality was given to every free Black (april 1792), and esclavagism was abolished (1793-1794).