CAMBRIDGE — On the wall at Harvard Art Museums, Kerry James Marshall and Nicolas Regnier sit shoulder to shoulder and centuries apart. But the idea, really, is to see them on the same level.
Marshall, now in his 60s, is the paterfamilias of African-American painting, with decades invested in depicting, over and over, scenes of black American life. Regnier, a 17th-century painter, comes from a lineage of European old masters. With equal parts determination and mastery, Marshall’s lifelong project has been to chip into a sealed canon dominated by Regnier and his kind. And finally, the cracks are showing.
At Harvard, the complex interplay between Marshall’s “Untitled,” a 2008 portrait of an ebony-skinned painter in his studio staring down the viewer from behind a palette thick with bright paint, and “Self-Portrait with an Easel,” a playful piece Regnier made some time between 1620 and 1625, speaks to a larger movement, both at Harvard and within the museum world itself, to break old cultural habits.
It is, to put it bluntly, an unabashed righting of wrongs — a repositioning of the museums’ collections amid rising sensitivities to the history of gender and race in art, and how they play out in our increasingly messy, divisive world.
In the midst of a new, full-blown chapter of the culture wars, the initiative arrives right on time.
The project shifts which works are displayed side by side in the museums and changes, sometimes dramatically, the words on the walls alongside them. Since February, the museums have been working their way through the collections, rewriting the wall labels that accompany virtually all of their historical works with a mind to presenting a more inclusive, holistic view of art history. Deeper, fuller truth is the absolute goal.
Enlisting a team of graduate fellows and PhD candidates, the curators approached their work as a form of redress: Labels, for example, that accompany a series of 18th-century portraits of the Boylston family — city founders, the archetype of the Boston Brahmins — by John Singleton Copley, the de facto court painter of the city’s rich, now describe how the family’s vast wealth was amassed largely through the slave trade.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “Odalisque,” from 1840, one of his greatest works, depicts a naked woman splayed on a bed, being attended to by a dark-skinned slave; the new label unpacks Ingres’s work, finally, as a heated fantasy of an exoticized east by a painter who had never been, and describes Ingres’s portrayal of the woman as a “sexual prize.” A small oil painting by Toulouse Lautrec from 1881, of a black woman in frilly finery waving from a horse-drawn carriage, finally calls her by name: Anne Justine Angèle Delva de Dalmarie, a member of the Haitian aristocracy who emigrated to France. The painting’s title is, ambiguously, “The Black Countess.” The original label mentioned her not at all, though she’s the work’s central figure. Lautrec never identified her, and the decades of scholarship that followed never bothered to, either — until now.
The project lays bare the selective truth beneath long-held textbook narratives, rife with exclusions designed by a conquering class with blood on its hands. But it also deepens a museumgoer’s experience of art and of history both. Along the way, artists like Marshall take their rightful place in an arc from which they were deliberately excluded.
Harvard Art Museums, like their institutional peers all over the world, have also been shifting the stories they tell, pushing back against the rigid categories that defined art scholarship for a century or more. Casting Marshall and Regnier as a conversation between equals would have been museum-world heresy not so long ago. With fiery rhetoric around inclusion and equity now exploding all over the world — and nowhere more than in the United States — it’s time to choose a side.
And Harvard has, very much in its own way. Where other museums have seized the moment for a near-total reset, the Harvard Art Museums have stressed subtle, almost surgical interventions. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, director Christopher Bedford announced last year that it would be selling off some of its major works by well-known artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg to fund-raise for acquisitions of works by women and people of color. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been shut down since June to wipe its own slate clean and reinstall its entire collection with a mind to the same kind of inclusiveness (it reopens Oct. 21).
But the Harvard project is no small thing for a museum functioning within a university long hesitant to acknowledge its connections to the uglier parts of American history. Harvard’s earliest presidents had slaves living and working in their residences, a fact publicly acknowledged by the school only in 2016, when a plaque was unveiled in their memory on campus. The same year, under student pressure, the law school abandoned its coat of arms, which was adopted to honor the Royalls, one of the school’s founding families who were also prominent slaveholders. Louis Agassiz, a celebrated 19th-century Harvard zoologist, has been disavowed by his field for advancing racist theories concerning the intellectual inferiority of blacks, though his family name still appears prominently throughout campus.
Museums, of course, were designed with exclusivity built in: by wealthy Europeans, first for their peers and then the larger European public. It was an idea imported to the colonies with particular zeal, used to enforce the position of the ruling class: Museums displayed European culture as the paragon of refinement, with other cultures — many of them conquered — as primitive subjects of anthropological study.
On a continent still smoldering with the outright genocide of indigenous peoples and the brisk, brutal trade of Africans in bondage, museums became walled fortresses of a narrow version of acceptable history. Unraveling that tight, brutal tale to reveal broader, messier truths, however uncomfortable, is now every museum’s task. Given the divisive rhetoric that now routinely flows from the country’s highest offices, that task has become an urgent one.
At Harvard, Ethan Lasser, the museums’ head of European and American art, and chief curator Soyoung Lee have picked their spots, and carefully, for their first public gestures toward addressing the museums’ generational blind spots. They’re designed for maximum impact. A Copley portrait of Nicholas Boylston now describes him as having “amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.” Boylston, surrounded in the picture by silken finery — as he would have demanded — rests an arm on a thick ledger book; a tall ship can be seen in the bay out the window.
The old label described the fact of his trade not at all; made explicit, the picture changes completely. Lasser explained how, in this kind of portraiture, a figure might pose with the Bible or a scholarly tome. Boylston chose a business ledger — indicative, maybe, of the Brahmin’s true form of devotion. The book would have been filled, one imagines, with the names of African people moved as cargo. The ship was another representation of that cargo — again, requested by Boylston — as the source of his wealth.
It lays bare a reality the city was long reticent to address. “Our Colonial revisionist idea that the wealthy merchant class here was trading principally in molasses and rum are rose-colored,” Lasser said. “When you look at the slavery database, you see that slave trading was the industry in Boston in the 18th century, and that Boylston was a leading player. We don’t like Boston to be part of that story — there’s been a real resistance to that story. We like to talk about Frederick Douglass and abolitionism here, but less the other side of it.”
Lasser looks back toward the painting, and the small, dark ship plying the waves. “As a viewer in the 18th century, you would have to know what this was,” he said. “Copley wants us to know this. So does Boylston. It’s important to call out, because he wasn’t judged for it.”
Each label requires intensive research and care to be both correct and not overly blunt. Facts, in this climate, need to be unassailable, which makes the ongoing rollout slow work. More labels will be coming, Lasser and Lee said, including those that reconsider Asian and Native American culture in the context of a broader view of American art.
Just as important as the words are the stories the works are starting tell, newly side by side. It’s not a coincidence that in the same room as the Copleys, you’ll find a large portrait of George Washington, also an owner of slaves, or that in the middle of the space, you’ll see a wampum belt — Native American craft used as currency, as well as documentation for treaties — not far from a large painting by Washington Allston, an American painter whose fantasy landscapes of the North American wilds were often populated by white goddesses. (The connection will be made clearer in the fall, Lasser said, when Native American artist Edgar Heap of Birds arrives in the space to confront Allston directly.)
Harvard’s project takes on the old histories baked into its collections with the perspective our moment demands, but it also leaves space for new stories to unfold. One, a portrait by New Orleans painter Julien Hudson, opens a channel to a neglected vision of America. Its subject, a young woman in a white gown, hair pulled neatly back, poses in front of a misty swamp at dusk. She’s not named, but that’s not the only ambiguous thing about her.
With her big brown eyes and olive skin, she appears Hispanic, Native American, or maybe part black. Hudson, the son of a white New Orleanian and a freed black slave, knew this world by heart. A gifted young artist among the vibrant antebellum world of New Orleans’s free people of color, Hudson was sponsored by the wealthy in his community — some black, some mixed race, some white — to study painting in France alongside Abel de Pujol, a student of Jacques-Louis David.
He came home to paint his community. This young woman was among them. Hung here alongside the great works of French romantic painters, she’s an outlier, a radically fresh amendment to a shopworn tale. In many ways, she is New Orleans, and so much more — a portrait of another America rarely seen, and surely not on museum walls. If you can describe Harvard’s project here as anything, it’s this: the conjuring of another history, no less true, struggling for too long to be heard.
Correction: Julien Hudson studied painting in France alongside Abel de Pujol. An earlier version of this article was incorrect.