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Alexandre Dumas’ Afro: Blackness Caricatured, Erased, and Back Again

DeWitt Cheng

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Berkeley, California

Continuing through July 30, 2023

 

The thesis of this small, delectable exhibition of nineteenth-century prints and publications is the curious position of three generations of accomplished men of color in French culture who all married French women. The lineage begins with the half-black Haitian grandfather, Napoleonic general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), illegitimate son of a French nobleman and his African slave, Marie-Cesette (or Cezette) Dumas; continues with his quadroon son, Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870), the prolific author of some 100,000 pages of fiction and nonfiction, including the classic novels “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo;” and his octoroon son, Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), best known today for his 1844 novel, “La Dame aux Camélias,” and a subsequent play, “Camille,” which was transformed by Giuseppe Verdi into the 1853 opera, “La Traviata.” All three men took the surname of the general’s mother, which may have connoted her humble status. But Thomas-Alexandre later accepted the aristocratic rank that was his due as the only son of the Marquis de la Paillelreie.

(l. to r.) General Dumas, c.1808, anonymous print. Étienne Carjat, “Alexandre Dumas,” 1865. albumen print cabinet card. 

BAMPFA collection, gift of Jan Leonard and Jerrold R. Piel. Pierre Petit, “Alexandre Dumas (fils),” c.1860, carte de visite, albumen print

Mixed-race status, so condemned in antebellum America, seems to have held back the Dumas clan very little, if at all. France had outlawed slavery in 1813, fifty years before the United States followed suit (and, of course, only after the upheaval of the Civil War). If the exhibition title suggests controversy, the artifacts on view suggest that the French took a fairly, if not completely, enlightened view of their great men, whatever their parentage. In considering erasure and caricature in the visual record, some ironies do arise. Dumas père occasionally reveals that even he is not immune from racial stereotyping, though without malice; and, because his vast audience required incessant production, he hired ghost writers who were known as — what else? —nègres.

(l.) Boussod & Valadon (after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson), “Revolt of Cairo,” 1893, typogravure

(r.) “A Hero of the Epoch: General Dumas Fighting the Austrians,” illustrated supplement of Petit Journal, No. 14, 1912

One example of historical erasure appears in an 1810 oil painting by the history painter Anne-Louise Girodet-Trioson, represented here by an 1893 typogravure depicting General Dumas’s stunning 1798 victory against Cairene rebels. Curiously, the general is missing, replaced, in his son’s opinion, by the “tall fair hussar” charging the enemy like an avenging angel. This deletion from the official war painting was due to an argument between the general and Napoleon, who nursed a grudge and later denied him a pension. Symbolic restitution is made, however, in a 1912 color supplement to Le Petit Journal which shows the stalwart warrior (The Black Devil, as his opponents dubbed him), apparently eight feet tall, single-handedly fighting off enemy troops at Clausen, now in Italy, in 1797. “The Hero of the Epoch,” reads the headline.

(l.) Benjamin Roubaud, “Torrent 25 Feet Wide,” lithograph, Le Charivari, September 28, 1838

(r.) Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noë), “Alexandre Dumas Working to Fulfill All His Commitments,” wood engraving, L'Illustration, March 14, 1846

Parisian periodicals celebrated their éminences grises with caricatures that gently satirized the characters of their outsized targets, as we see in several depictions of Dumas père with his contemporaries. Dumas, knowing the value of publicity, remarked that the best likenesses of him were caricatures. This lordly humor comports well with a friend’s colorful account of his expansive personality: “the most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He was also the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill — once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop it, especially if the theme is himself.”

 

In Benjamin Roubaud’s 1838 lithograph, we see the young and indefatigable travel writer straddling a 25-foot wide torrent in a single stride, his distinctive pyramidal coiffure visually echoing the crags beneath and behind him. An 1846 wood engraving based on a drawing by Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noé) mocks the writer’s prodigious output, imagining him writing with both hands, both feet, and even the back of his neck. Another work by Cham mocks the lengthy plays that Dumas crafted from his popular novels, depicting a multistage production — a ”revival of a revival“ of “The Three Musketeers” with all the scenes played simultaneously, so as to save time. Yet another Cham cartoon. this one from 1858, pictures the author as a gourmet chef, his distinctive hairdo intact even with the plumpness of middle age, creating a bouillabaisse — or potboiler — of overly familiar characters, lacking only a pinch of garlic.

Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noë), “Revival of the Revival of The Musketeers,” wood engraving, L'Illustration (no date)

Cham (Amédée Charles Henri de Noë), “New Dramatic Bouillabaisse by Dumas Père,” lithograph, Le Charivari, March 31, 1858

Last month, I criticized the work of Kehinde Wiley for presenting, in large, sometimes colossal paintings and sculptures, anonymous young models posed as tragic heroes in attitudes derived from both classic and romantic traditions — politically correct cosplays short on substance. In this show, presenting actual material from the Romantic era, we see race presented refreshingly (considering the hysteria and hyperbole of America’s MAGA mob) as no big deal. We are all out of Africa, evolutionarily speaking. For Francophiles, devotees of literature and drama, and those who believe in human evolution, this small eye-opening show turns out to be quite a big deal.

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