Black masks, raced skin, and the flawed archive
This thesis examines local collector Jeremy Simien's ca. 1720 French painting of two closely acquainted women, one white, the other a person of color. The identities of the artist and the sitters remain unknown. The first section utilizes formal visual analysis, historical context, and related portraits to attempt to name the artist of the painting and speculate on the identity of the sitters, demonstrating the limits of this approach when working with an incomplete and biased archive. The second section places the work in the context of sororal portraits, Black attendant portraits, and Martin’s Dido and Slaughter’s Women Gathering Fruit, examining how the Simien Collection Dual Portrait’s resistance to categorization precipitates a larger discussion on colorism, femininity, and subjecthood. The third section explores the mask as both a symbol for the theatricality and fluidity of identity in Early Modern European society and as a tool for self-fashioning upon the advent of the racialization of skin color. This section further situates the Simien Collection Dual Portrait within the political, economic, and social environment of Regency Era France, ultimately positing the composition as a statement on the hierarchy of race and an assertion of an ideal French identity. The closing section discusses combating ongoing inequities in the archive and museums through interventions by contemporary artists, intentional collecting, and fresh and unconventional research approaches, showcasing how the field of art history must seek out new tools, methods, and ways of looking in order to fully study works that have been excluded from the canon of traditionally surveyed and valued art.