Art & Apesh*t

Warning, contains sweeping generalizations and graphic art.

Mary Patterson

Mary Patterson (1828) J. Oliphant

Recently, I came across the above image. A pencil sketch by John Oliphant of a young woman named Mary Patterson. The subject is nude, supine, and one of a long line of female artistic subjects laid in a posture that would be uncomfortable to hold for any length of time.

Among my favorites from the genre of uncomfortably recumbent:

Fuseli, The Nightmare

Henri Fuseli The Nightmare (1781)

Venus Victrix

Antonio Canova’s Venus Victrix (1808

Ravesteyn Venus

Dirk de Quade van Ravesteyn’s Ruhende Venus (~1608), or Venus at Rest

Anatomical Venus

And Clemete Susini’s Anatomical Venus (~1770)

This final figure, a female wax cadaver designed to have her organs removed and replaced time and again for the edification of Florentine medical students is more apt a comparison than the previous three artworks:

Mary Patterson, the first artistic subject, is dead.

Her portrait is a post-mortem sketch commissioned by Dr. Robert Knox of Edinburgh, she was likely posed by his students. Mary herself was murdered by the notorious duo Burke and Hare, two men who plied their victims with alcohol, smothered them, and delivered their fresh corpses to Knox where they were paid handsomely for supplying material for his anatomical school.

At their trial, Knox would claim to ignorance as to the origin of the corpses he needed to train his students. Knox would not face formal repercussions for his part in the murder of over a dozen people.

Some versions of Mary Patterson’s story say that after the sketch, a horrified student (or maybe another anatomical instructor) insisted on an immediate burial for the young woman. Another version claims Knox could not bring himself to dissect her immediately, and instead preserved Mary in alcohol for months, presumably until her beauty was marred by the inundation and she became dehumanized enough to dissect. Other versions say she was dissected immediately, becoming less a person and more a series of pieces over the following days or weeks until Knox and his students had gleaned all the knowledge they could from her corpse, at which point any remnants would have been discretely disposed of.

The history of European art is dominated by depictions of white people. The history of female subjects of European art is dominated by white women in a state of undress.

Frequently, they look away from their artist.

This is a large reason why the most famous woman on canvas, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa (~1500) is so startling. The Mona Lisa stares back, she observes her observer. She meets the gaze equally, judging DaVinci five centuries ago, and us today, even as we inspect her.

Mona Lisa

Compare her with probably the second most famous woman on canvas, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (~1480)

Birth of Venus

Nude: Check.

Looking away: Check.

Uncomfortable: Maybe?

When was the last time you held your head at that angle and your thighs together and your leg half-raised for any length of time?

According to hundreds of years of Europe’s finest artists, this is what beauty looks like.

According to hundreds of years of Europe’s finest artists, beauty looks like me.

And my mother.

My grandmothers.

My sister and aunts and most of my friends.

The 20th century saw changes to the discussions surrounding art, beauty, and race. The 21st century, all two decades of it, has seen more evolutions.


Two summers ago, Beyoncé and Jay-Z thrust themselves into the discussion of brown bodies in classical art with the music video for their song “Apesh*t” (2018).

The song itself is middling to me, braggadocio about wealth, power and fame notable for coming from a woman rather than a man, but nothing groundbreaking. Nothing like the ferocity and reconciliation that spans her Lemonade album (2016).

The video, however, is art.

Directed by Ricky Saiz and shot on location in the Louvre, it offers a stunning commentary on black bodies, the way they have been placed in art historically, and the necessary space that they need to, and will take in the zeitgeist in centuries to come.

Better art historians than I have discussed the significance of the pieces highlighted by Beyoncé and Saiz, including the controversially obtained Winged Victory, Jacque Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon (1807), and Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault tragic Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), two pillars of early 19th century French painting and an statuary emblem of colonialism.*

The final painting highlighted in Apesh*t is lesser known but no less stunning.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman (1800) stares at her observers, just as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa, a few galleries over.

In a time when people of color were shadowed servants in scenes crowded with white subjects, or appeared in illustrations with rough lines and little nuance as slaves in bondage, she is a rarity, possibly unique.

She is not as covered as the Lisa, not as nude as the Venuses.

Her clothing drapes classically, the blue fabric behind her is rich with an embroidered detail finishing the edge rather than a roughly sewn hem. The fringe beyond the embroidery is even, purposeful, not a crude fray.  An indication of either her skill as a craftswoman, or her ability to purchase the work of a skilled craftswoman.

Her breast is exposed, and one arm is bare. The arm is muscled realistically, her fingers are loose and natural. Her eyes meet ours, and her painters’, unflinchingly. Her shoulders have a natural arch I recognize from my own posture, even as I write this.

Despite her bare chest, this unnamed woman does not exude the same vulnerability as most of the previously mentioned artists’ subjects. She is not the sleepy Venus recumbent, the modest Venus covered delicately with hair and hands, the pinned victim of a night terror, or the dead woman with her spine exposed for artist, anatomist, and students alike.

Benoist’s subject is aware of what is happening to her.

Like the Portrait, Beyoncé spends most of her camera time pinning the viewer with her gaze. She challenges those watching to extend what is considered beautiful. She challenges artists to expand what they take as subject matter.

She is active.

Wikipedia has multiple pages devoted to lists upon lists of various supine nudes, artworks representing centuries of inactive white women, splayed and waiting for the eyes of the world. Women who invite this gaze, and women who were exploited by it.

We live two hundred years beyond Mary Patterson and her sad fate at the hands of Burke, Hare, and Knox and white women have started standing up.

Started standing with our sisters.

It’s beyond time.

*If you are curious about the art represented and juxtaposed throughout the video, I recommend Ellen Caldwell’s “What About the Art in “Apesh*t”?

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