‘Peculiar circumstances of the land’: Artists and Models in Nineteenth‐Century Brazilian Slave Society

by Daryle Williams


This essay proposes a fresh reading of the French Artistic Mission and its successors within the visual and labour economies of Brazilian slave society. It asks how the French academics who took up a Brazilian residence in 1816 and their disciples acclimatized themselves and the neoclassical fine arts tradition to the aesthetic and labour conditions of widespread slaveholding. The evolution of a pedagogical aesthetic of the human body in an Atlantic slave society is Daryle Williams’ primary concern. More specifically, Williams interrogates how the artist’s model – a pillar of the European fine arts education tradition since the sixteenth century – embodied the troublesome dilemmas of the fine arts in slavocratic Brazil. Empirical evidence situates the careers of life models and life modelling in the long arc of the transatlantic slave trade to Brazil (outlawed in 1831, but not effectively proscribed before 1850), the broken paths to freedom taken by a special class of the illegally enslaved known as Free Africans, gradual abolitionism (a movement that began in the 1870s and culminated in the Golden Law of 13 May 1888), the decline of the Brazilian empire (overthrown in the bloodless coup d’état of 15 November 1889), and the early consolidation of the post-emancipation, republican order.

Williams’ central argument is that the social and cultural histories of life modelling in nineteenth-century Brazil were constituted by and within certain explicit adaptations to local conditions of widespread slaveholding and the casualization of free-wage labour that accompanied gradual abolition.

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