ANNE-LOUIS GIRODET-TRIOSON (French, 1767-1824)
Signed and dated lower left: A L Girodet f.cit an V.
Oil on canvas
159,5x 112,8 cm
An is French for year and the Roman numeral V stands for the 5th year in the French revolutionary calendar. It is the year 1796 in our Gregorian calendar.
Château de Versailles
Do you think Monsieur Belley has had a hard life or an easy life?
Is he young or middle-aged?
Is he proud or modest, foolish or wise?
Can he be easily bullied?
Has he done manual labor? Look at the veins in his hands and the marble of the pedestal!
Is he done fighting or must he continue?
Imagine being born about 270 years ago in Senegal, West Africa. You are two years old when you are being sold as a slave to Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti. You arrive in the French colony in the Caribbean, far away from Senegal. You are one of 500,000 slaves who speak many different African languages. You cannot always understand each other.
Dawn to dusk you toil away in the sweltering heat. You harvest coffee and sugar cane. This puts coffee and sweets on the dining tables of Europe.
You save up your earnings to buy your freedom.
You become an infantry officer and fight in a revolution on the island. You then travel to Paris and represent Saint-Domingue in France. Do you think people always treated you with respect?
You are the elected deputy from Saint-Domingue. Your name is Jean-Baptiste Belley and you are at long last a free citizen of France.
Belley is leaning on a pedestal with a white marble bust. Raynal had written in favor of the abolition of slavery. Even though Raynal’s head is much bigger than Belley’s, they are on the same level. Are they equals?
The Revolutionary Wars are raging in Europe. A young artist Anne-Louis Girodet (he is a man, despite his first name) has been asked to paint the achievements of the Revolution. Does Girodet paint Belley in his studio or on top of the hill? Does the landscape look French or Caribbean? Spot some smoke coming from a burning building! This may remind us of the revolution Belley fought on the island.
We are looking up at Belley who is gazing at the sky. Do you feel like tapping his muscly arm so he turns around and looks at you? Why is he wearing a shiny gold earring? In Roman times a freed slave who advanced to the rank of knight was allowed to wear a gold ring and run for public office.
The tricolored silk sash is tied around the waist of his uniform. The uniform shows that you represent the people. This is the first painting of an African-born man as a powerful western ruler. Do you know the three colors of the French flag?
“Liberty-Equality-Fraternity” is the motto of Haiti and of France!
In 1802 Napoleon reinstates slavery. Together with Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Belley returns to Saint-Domingue in 1802. There he is arrested and brought back to France where dies in prison three years later. In 1848 France once again abolishes slavery, a crime against humanity.