Fictions of Emancipation Carpeaux's Why Born Enslaved! Reconsidered Elyse Nelson, Wendy S. Walters

Publication date:
29 Mar 2022
Metropolitan Museum of Art
176 pages: 229 x 178mm
40 color + 50 b-w illus.
Sales territories:


A critical reexamination of Carpeaux’s bust Why Born Enslaved! and other nineteenth-century antislavery images—this book interrogates the treatment of the Black figure as a malleable political symbol and locus of exoticized beauty

This groundbreaking publication on Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s (1827–1875) bust Why Born Enslaved! examines the work in the context of transatlantic abolitionist movements and France’s colonialist fascination with Africa in the nineteenth century. Thoughtful essays by noted art historians and literary scholars, including Adrienne L. Childs, James Smalls, and Wendy S. Walters, unpack European artists’ engagement with the Black figure, simultaneously evoked as a changeable political symbol and a representation of exoticized beauty and desire. The authors compare Carpeaux’s sculpture to works by his contemporaries, such as Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, Edmonia Lewis, and Louis Simon Boizot, as well as to objects by twenty-first-century artists Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley. In so doing, the book critically examines the portrayal of Black emancipation and personhood; the commodification of Black images to assert social capital; the role of sculpture in generating the sympathies of its audiences; and the relevance of Carpeaux’s sculpture to legacies of empire in the postcolonial present. It will also feature a chronology of events central to the nineteenth-century antislavery movement.

Elyse Nelson is assistant curator of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European sculpture in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wendy S. Walters is concentration head in nonfiction and associate professor in the Writing Program of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, New York.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(March 9, 2022–March 5, 2023)