Exhibition | Elizabeth Colomba: Repainting the Story

Elizabeth Colomba, Laure (Portrait of a Negress), 2018. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Artwork © Elizabeth Colomba / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkA strong commitment to the figurative tradition defines the narratives of the artist Elizabeth Colomba, a French citizen of Martinican descent. After graduating from the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Colomba lived in Los Angeles before moving to New York City in 2011. Drawing on her classical training, Colomba creates meticulous, multilayered paintings that place Black individuals—primarily women—in spaces from which they have been erased or in which they have often been assigned subservient roles. In addition to making allegorical portraits of historical icons—such as Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American female poet—Colomba foregrounds an array of fictional protagonists, often richly dressed and in opulent settings. Frequently referencing older works by European artists, Colomba employs motifs from religious narratives and classical mythology to empower her subjects, thereby reclaiming for them, in her words, “an egalitarian existence in a story from which the Black body is almost always absent.” In her first solo museum exhibition, the colonial-era interiors of Bainbridge House provide an eloquent foil for Colomba’s radical correctives of established themes in Western art and culture. Her empowered heroines emerge as central and universal figures, displacing the canonical whiteness encompassing the biblical Eve and the fairy-tale Cinderella.

Elizabeth Colomba, (born 1976, Épinay-sur-Seine, France; active New York, NY), The Denial of Saint Peter, 2017. Oil and gold leaf on canvas. Collection of the Nwabuzor Family. Artwork © Elizabeth Colomba / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkThe exhibition opens with one of the artist’s most celebrated paintings, Laure (Portrait of a Negress), which represents the Black model who posed as the maid in Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). That work caused a scandal at the 1865 Paris Salon for its raw and unidealized representation of a nude prostitute lying on a bed. Colomba’s painting removes Laure from the confines of the artist’s studio and foregrounds her as an independent woman on a rainy Parisian street. The model, of whom no photographs are known, is referred to in one of Manet’s notebooks as “Laure . . . très belle négresse” [Laure . . . very beautiful negress], which is jotted next to her address “11, rue de Vintimille”—only a short walk from the artist’s studio in northern Paris. This area was home to a growing Black community after France’s final abolition of territorial and domestic slavery in 1848. Colomba amplifies the suggested narrative—Laure on her way to Manet’s studio—by planting topographical and historical markers, including the gates to the Parc Monceau, near Manet’s studio, and, on the right, a glimpse of Cora Pearl, a famous British courtesan based in Paris, who would dye her pug’s fur the color of her outfit.

Elizabeth Colomba, Clytie, 2008. Watercolor and gouache over graphite. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, gift of the PECO Foundation. Artwork © Elizabeth Colomba / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkThe most complex of what the artist has termed her “ Feminine Sacred” paintings is The Denial of Saint Peter, which refers to a nocturnal episode from the Passion of Christ—when the Apostle Peter denies his knowledge of Christ three times before a rooster crows. This scene and that of Peter’s subsequent remorse are shown in the two seventeenth-century candlelit scenes by Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour that Colomba paints against the spotlighted wall. The servant from the biblical story, usually shown confronting Peter, has been displaced here by a regal Black woman clutching a dead rooster. In the artist’s restaging, the servant has become the Virgin Mary, signified by the sumptuous red and blue gown often worn by the Virgin in Italian Renaissance paintings. She has killed the rooster before it could crow, thereby interceding in her son’s fate and preventing his arrest and crucifixion. She walks toward the empty frame on the wall, going back in time to rewrite the story on her own terms.

John Northwood (British, 1837–1902), Josiah Wedgwood and Sons (English, established 1759), Copy of the Portland Vase. Black and white jasper ware. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of George Packer Berry, Class of 1921 Colomba addresses issues of both race and gender in her reinterpretations of allegorical symbolism and classical mythology. In Four Elements, Five Senses, Colomba surrounds her elegant protagonist with nine allegorical concepts, ranging from the bowl of fruits signifying earth to the bird nestled in the woman’s hand, which symbolizes both the element air and the sense of touch. Colomba also seeks to show the woman in a moment of leisure, or what she calls “timeless lightness,” which renders her attuned to her senses and absorbed in her luxurious surroundings.

Colomba’s elaborate settings can be emotionally charged for some of her Black female subjects. In the Museum’s watercolor Clytie, the mythological nymph’s cowering stance denotes trauma after Helios, god of the sun, betrayed and abandoned her. Subsequently, she wasted away while gazing at his chariot as it traversed the sky; Helios (often interchanged with Apollo) then transformed her into a flower that always turns toward the sun. In Colomba’s interpretation, Clytie turns away from both the god himself—represented as Apollo in the painting above the mantel behind her—and a group of sunflowers arranged in the much-copied ancient Roman Portland Vase (British Museum), with its enigmatic vignettes of white figures on a black ground. Colomba’s Clytie recoils from the rejection and exclusion imposed on her by entrenched Western story lines. Like the other depictions of Black women in the exhibition, this watercolor exemplifies Colomba’s goal of repainting centuries of pictorial bias and her commitment to what she describes as “anchoring the spirit of the African diaspora by . . . establishing a different visual landscape, devoid of servile narrative.”

Laura M. Giles
Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings

Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; Barbara and Gerald Essig; and Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum. Additional support is provided by Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert B. Goergen.