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“Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” at the Musée d’Orsay, builds on this kind of archival research to recover the biographies of models of African descent in canonical French painting. While Olympia, often considered the first modern painting, plays a central role in the exhibition, its scope, as the subtitle suggests, reaches far beyond that tableau. The show chronologically traces the depiction of black figures in French painting from the revolution to the mid-twentieth century. More than a project to uncover the identities of the unnamed subjects, “Black Models” inverts how biographical research is put to use.

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