A 16th-century French legal tenet said “there are no slaves in France,” but art history tells a different story.
The kingdom saw itself as one “whose very soil imparted freedom,” write New York University’s Meredith Martin and her coauthor, Case Western Reserve Professor Gillian Weiss, in The Sun King and the Sea: Maritime Art and Galley Slavery in Louis XIV’s France (Getty Research Institute Publications, 2021).
“Famously enforced in Paris to emancipate some of the Black Africans brought from the Caribbean during the eighteenth century, this abstract, widely cited principle applied neither to chattel slaves in overseas possessions nor to enslaved Turks who typically served on royal galleys for life.”
(Credit: Getty Research Institute)
This deception was recognized in subsequent centuries—”Laughable maxim! Ostentatious lie! The chains of slavery were not broken in France,” wrote French historian Augustin Fabre, three years after the US Civil War. However, as Martin and Weiss observe, “for the next hundred and fifty years, the notion that France, unlike its Mediterranean neighbors, had confined its slaveholding to distant plantations in the Americas went mostly unquestioned.”
Their book comes at a time when many nations—including Portugal, Great Britain, and of course the United States, which continues to grapple with legacies of enslavement of Black and Indigenous people in the South and throughout the country—have intensified examinations of their troubling pasts.
And while many of these efforts center on the review of centuries-old records and other documents, France’s role in slavery has, in fact, been “hiding in plain sight,” explains Martin, an associate professor in NYU’s art history department and Institute of Fine Arts—specifically, in museums and even in Versailles.
In The Sun King and the Sea, Martin and Weiss consider how artists depicted slavery during the reign of King Louis XIV—and how those depictions upend misperceptions that remain today.
Their book seeks to challenge this persistent myth, largely by focusing on Mediterranean maritime art—that which depicted, and celebrated, Louis XIV’s rule, as exercised over the waterway that connected Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Here, Martin speaks about what her new book illuminates about art and the time periods in which they were created—and how leaders are navigating calls to remove controversial works while still preserving history:
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