François Malépart de Beaucourt and Portrait of a Haitian Woman (1786)
François Malépart de Beaucourt is a French – Canadian painter born in Québec, considered to be the first painter to derive his technique from Europe. Beaucourt studied in France under the guidance of Joseph-Gaétant Camagne. According to records, it must have been his father who influenced him to paint. However, there is little information as to some specific eras in his life. In the later years of 1770, Beaucourt started painting several art pieces such as the curtains of the boxes and stage of the Grand-Théâtre of Bordeaux and the chapel of the Benedictine monastery of La Réole. Many additions would come in his later years.
In 1792, Beaucourt stayed in Philadelphia where he advertised his skills and expressed that he wanted to take some students. In June of 1792, a similar advertisement appeared in the Montreal Gazette, however, the painter no longer identified himself as French but rather Canadian. In the same month, a newspaper published another advertisement saying that Beaucort has just arrived in Canada.
One of Beaucort’s rare and interesting paintings is the so called Portrait of a Negro Slave or Negress (1786) or presently known as the Portrait of a Haitian Woman (1786). The painting depicts the social status of the subject as well as her race. The Canadian portrait indicates a shift from Western oil portraiture.
The painting is by far the best professionally made representation of black slave in Québec and Canada. The sexuality that the painting exudes showing part of the breast represents the kind of state that slaves during that time experienced and their vulnerability to sexual abuse and exploitation. The painting also explains the economic value of the subject being a black slave. Beaucort’s portrait immensely influenced the view of people towards black women, as they gradually became considered as sex slaves and objects.
According to historical records, Beaucort completed the painting in Saint-Domingue known now as Haiti. The painter was said to have stayed in the place in the height of the Haitian Revolution where slavery was rampant and has one of the harshest conditions. This many have possibly pushed Beaucort to depict the tragedy that black women experienced during that time.
More records suggests that the subject of the portrait is a woman named Marie-Thérèse-Zémire which Beaucort and his wife owned in Montreal. The painting is currently displayed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.