Treasures by Manet, Matisse and others debut uptown in "Posing Modernity," a show tracing

It's not every day you see priceless works of art by Manet, Matisse, and other modernist masters above 100th Street, but for the next three and a half months they'll be on full display in "Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today" at the Wallach Art Gallery in West Harlem.

Tracing the evolution of the black female figure in modern art from Edouard Manet to the present, this new exhibition was co-organized by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris–and will be headed there in March after its uptown run.

The show is the latest in a string of impressive–and free–exhibits at the Wallach, which relocated to a new space on Columbia University's Renzo Piano-designed Manhattanville campus last summer.

It began as the subject of a Columbia Graduate School thesis by Denise Murrell, now the curator of the show. With help from the Ford Foundation, Murrell was able to borrow more than 100 art-world treasures to make the history of the black model in modern art come alive.

The presentation begins with four Manet oils that feature black female figures, including a portrait of Laure, the model who appears as the maid in Manet's masterpiece, "Olympia." (That work is an important part of the discussion here, but sadly remains at the Musée d'Orsay.)

It then slowly segues from paintings by Manet's contemporaries such as Frédéric Bazille to portraits by Harlem Renaissance painter William H. Johnson and Henri Matisse, whose own visits to Harlem in the 1930s affected him deeply.

In the last two galleries, Manet's legacy reaches its climax in the work of 20th-century artists like Romare Bearden and Mickalene Thomas. Most uplifting is the clear move away from earlier stereotypes of black women as servants and performers to a focus on their beauty, strength and indepedence.

It's a show with a much-need viewpoint–and one that's definitely easier to enjoy now than when it eventually moves to Paris.

From top: Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870; Édouard Manet, La négresse (Portrait of Laure), 1862–63; William H. Johnson, Portrait of Woman with Blue and White Striped Blouse, ca. 1940–42; Mickalene Thomas, Din, une très belle négresse #1 (Din, a very beautiful black woman #1), 2012.

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