This particular attempt at imagining a site of memory made of words may appear irreverent at first, but it has been crafted as an homage to a formidable woman: Jeanne Duval. I have taken the liberty of fictionalizing a first-person narrator who will talk about ‘herself’, at the risk of usurping her voice and her identity. Jeanne (whose name was or was not Duval) was a woman of colour and she had a long-term turbulent relationship with the enfant terrible of French nineteenth-century poetry, Charles Baudelaire. As a result, historical accounts both magnify and marginalize her. Trying to do justice to a historical character who was so much more than a muse but may not have been happy to embrace the role of exemplary black foremother, this text puts together the numerous and often incompatible portraits of Jeanne Duval. She appears and disappears in biographies (Emmanuel Richon), novels (Fabienne Pasquet), short stories (Angela Carter), academic studies (Claude Pichois). She is both present and absent, celebrated and erased in the so-called ‘Black Venus cycle’ of Baudelaire’s Flower of Evil as well as in paintings by Edouard Manet (Baudelaire’s Mistress, Reclining) and Gustave Courbet (The Painter’s Studio). The objective was to question the process of memorialization that might silence or appropriate her instead of providing her with a safe space of memory. It remains to be seen to what extent Jeanne is here celebrated or betrayed.
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