Curatorial Insight: Denise Murrell 

Nov. 4, 2022

Denise Murrell Speaks with Students of Bridget Alsdorf’s ART 450 Class About the Importance of Contextualization Along With Representation

Denise Murrell, Tisch Curator at Large for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, welcomed to the museum students in Bridget Alsdorf’s ART 450: “19th-Century European Art: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: New Approaches” and spoke to the seminar’s focus on recent scholarship and exhibitions that have shifted understandings of French impressionist and post-impressionist art.  Murrell’s major contribution to this shift began when she was pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at Columbia University and noted the absence of scholarship, or even acknowledgment, of people of color depicted in 19th-century French paintings. Examining this problem became the topic of her dissertation.  Murrell’s experience in orchestrating an exhibition began when she transformed this dissertation into Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (October 2018–February 2019) at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery and then co-curated the exhibition's expansion at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, as Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse (March–July 2019).  She spoke to the students about the tireless effort required to secure funding for the exhibition and the initial personal sacrifice that, through persistence supplemented with serendipity, ultimately brought the exhibition to life.

Murrell met Alsdorf and her students in the European painting gallery of Gustave Courbet’s portraits, which included a recent acquisition painted by François-Auguste Biard in 1848 depicting a man of African descent entitled Bust-Length Study of a Man.  The painting’s placement among Courbet’s portraits prompted a discussion about the critical importance of contextualizing works—a core element of Murrell’s role.  She explained her concern that in sharp contrast to all other portraits in that gallery, the subject of Biard’s painting is an unfinished study expressing trauma, giving viewers a negative impression of the condition of people of color in 19th-century France.   Acknowledging that the sum of 19th-century European paintings depicting people of African descent is limited, Murrell explained to the class that carefully considered placement of a small group of selected works can offer the public a more nuanced narrative that departs from the myopic representation of subjugation as the only story to tell. With thoughtful placement, Murrell said, three to five paintings that represent their subjects as autonomous, fully-fledged individuals can do a great deal to more fully represent the Black presence in 19th-century France. 

Denise Murrell speaking with ART 450 students in the Degas gallery

The next gallery on the tour, in which Murrell curated an exhibit centered on the works of Edgar Degas, exemplified her point.  Here, she combined paintings and pastels of Degas’ ballet dancers with works depicting circus performers including Degas’ Study for Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879).  This painting, which features renowned Black performer Miss La La, known for both her power and her artistry, is flanked by artworks that link circus performance and ballet.  A window into the experience of dancers in 19th–century France, the installation importantly brings into view the presence of Black performers. Murrell further contextualized Degas’ study with a QR code inviting the viewer to watch contemporary Black aerialist and circus performer Blaze Tarsha, who draws inspiration from Miss La La.  

Bridget Alsdorf with Art 450 students in Fictions of Emancipation exhibit
Bridget Alsdorf with Art 450 students in the Fictions of Emancipation exhibit

Murrell emphasized that representing people of color in the Museum’s galleries is a complex task; she continues to pursue acquisitions from her wish list and is also supplementing the Museum’s collection with donated and borrowed works as the collection develops.  Taking her leave, Murrell directed students to the exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast, which demonstrates the contextualized approach she spoke of. Centered around Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s marble sculpture Why Born Enslaved! (1868), the exhibition takes issue with the trope of Black enslavement in the wake of abolition as moral or political expression, offering a broader narrative that points to the popularity of antislavery imagery, the development of nineteenth-century ethnographic theories of racial difference, and France’s colonialist fascination with Africa.  Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast will run until March 2023.

“I’m grateful to Dr. Murrell for speaking so honestly with us about the challenge of changing entrenched narratives about nineteenth-century European art and the people it represents, while also inspiring students with the message that meaningful change is happening, one step at a time. She helped them understand the complex politics of display that curators must consider when presenting new acquisitions to the public. One painting can change an entire room, and disrupt the preconceptions of passersby. By sharing her thinking behind her reinstallation of the Degas galleries, students saw her resourceful, intelligent approach to collection research and rehanging in action. They also learned that major interventions in any field require persistence.”  —Bridget Alsdorf