Black venus

It began with a photograph of a strikingly beautiful black woman, taken by Felix Nadar in Paris, in the middle of the 19th century. Looking at it more than 100 years later, Maud Sulter, poet, artist, photographer and historian, felt the eyes of the unknown model meet her own. Who was this woman frozen in time by Nadar’s lens? As Sulter subsequently discovered, it was Jeanne Duval, the mistress of the poet Charles Baudelaire.

Despite being the inspiration for some of his finest poetry, the real Jeanne Duval exists only in the margins of history. But in a major exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this summer, Sulter aims to bring her to life for a 21st-century audience.

Duval’s grandmother was a slave from Guinea, sent to Europe to work in a brothel. It is likely that both Duval’s father and grandfather were white. Tall and beautiful with a fine singing voice, she made a career for herself as an entertainer in a era that craved the exotic - often described as the black venus phenomenon. Through her work, she met Nadar, and then, in 1842, his friend Baudelaire.

Duval’s and Baudelaire’s tempestuous relationship would last until his death in 1867. However, while Baudelaire described her as "my one diversion, my one pleasure, my one companion", he also complained that she treated him as a servant, a piece of property. But it is likely that he was far from an ideal partner. By 1842 he was already dependent on opium, suffering from syphilis and had been disinherited by his family, which had left him poverty-stricken. He was neither good-humoured nor faithful, yet Duval stood by him through his various hardships, selling her jewels to pay the bills. She once described him as "a gentle, inoffensive lunatic whose passion spent itself in versifying".

By the time Baudelaire died, Duval herself had suffered a stroke. The last time Nadar saw her, she was hobbling through Paris on crutches, having lost much of her beauty and health, but none of her courage and independence.

In the history of the western world, too often penned by white men, many women, and many black people, have been all but written out, portrayed only in terms of a society’s reactions to them. Perhaps it is wrong to think we can recreate a character who lived and died leaving so little of herself behind. But, as the few artistic interpretations of Jeanne Duval that remain in existence show, the attempt is definitely deserving of Sulter’s efforts.

Jeanne Duval: A Melodrama is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 30 May to 31 August

Maud Sulter from Les Bijoux VIII (2002)

In a series of photographs, Sulter portrays herself as Duval, drawing on Baudelaire’s poetry - in this case his Les Bijoux (Jewels) sequence. By using the medium of photography, she recreates a lost image, but seems also to give it new life. Sulter draws on her own experience as a muse and artist’s model to examine the conundrum of women down the centuries who have inspired great art - being immortalised, yet lost to history as individuals. As a black woman growing up in Britain, half-Scottish, half-Ghanaian, much of her work is concerned with black characters overlooked by western history, and with how her two cultures understand, or fail to understand, one another.

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio (1855)

Symbolic of Duval’s absence from history is the description of how she was painted out of Courbet’s seminal work The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Determining Seven Years of My Life as an Artist. She was originally painted next to Baudelaire (shown reading on the far right), but was removed at Baudelaire’s request after a quarrel. Courbet, who could not afford to upset Baudelaire - a prominent art critic as well as a poet - agreed. Within months, the couple were back together, but it was too late to amend the painting. It hangs today in the Muse d’Orsay, Paris, and from the right angle still reveals the shadowy presence of the black woman who was erased to please her spiteful lover.

Edouard Manet, Baudelaire’s Mistress, Reclining (1862)

This portrait of Duval was painted by Manet, a great friend of Baudelaire, when the painter was at the height of his powers. By contrast, Duval was in her early 40s and already suffering ill health following a stroke in 1859. Very likely she is reclining because she was too ill to stand, and her bounteous white skirts are spread over the seat to disguise the disability in her legs. Her face, too, is pale and drawn, unlike Nadar’s photograph, which shows her with much darker skin. The portrait, very likely painted for Baudelaire, was in Manet’s possession when he died, perhaps suggesting that the poet - or Duval herself - was unhappy with it.