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 Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts—specifically, in museums and even in Versailles.
In The Sun King and the Sea, Martin and Weiss consider how slavery was depicted in art during the reign of King Louis XIV—and in ways that 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.
NYU News spoke with Martin 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.
Many may regard art as beautiful or awe-inspiring or as the product of both talent and dedication. But your book considers how works of art—along with other artifacts from the late 17th century—celebrated enslavement. How does your scholarship, and related research, inform how we process the conflicting nature of artistic expression?
Many of the most beautiful artworks of the past have an ugly history—whether that history is related to their mode of production, their financing, their provenance, or even their subject matter. That is the case with the painting that’s on our book cover, which represents Louis XIV enslaving Muslims and is in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles. Yet very few accounts of the Hall of Mirrors mention this image. They focus instead on the larger, awe-inspiring portrayal of the king. This duality or this, as you say, conflicting nature of art and of culture more broadly, has been recognized for a long time—during World War II, philosopher Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
But more recently, scholars as well as the general public have been paying more attention to this underbelly. And this particular conflict, which is something that Gillian and I explore in our book, tarnishes the Sun King’s glorious image to some extent, but it also gives us a much fuller and richer picture.
By taking that approach, what do you illuminate that was perhaps missed in the past?
I think in terms of the particular history of Mediterranean maritime art, the focus on works of the period has, for so long, been on Paris and Versailles—on what art historians considered to be monumental high art productions and works of painting and sculpture made for the capital, as opposed to these more ephemeral coastal productions made for the periphery, many of which don’t survive anymore. So it is shedding light on an aspect of history that had gone unrecognized or, to some extent, had been repressed. Even though they weren’t repressed at the time, this story had faded from view over the centuries.
You’ve written that Michel Serre’s paintings of the Great Plague of Marseille (above) in 1720 “spotlight an ugly human tendency: to blame contagion on the same ‘foreigners’ who are often tasked with containing it.” But you also note that his works of enslaved Turks and Moors depict “them first and foremost as men, not monsters.” Was the art of period, then, both a justification of inhumane treatment as well as a manifestation of empathy?
It depends on the work of art that we’re talking about. In the case of Serre’s paintings, I think that what struck us, especially in light of COVID-19, was how fundamentally ambiguous they are and how they don’t seem to pose answers, but rather raise questions about the nature of humanity and about how we treat others during moments of crisis. Serre himself served as the head painter of the Royal Galleys for a number of years, so presumably he had sustained contact with enslaved rowers at the naval arsenal.