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Activity: Portraits of Black Women

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870

Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.6

Observation and Discussion

  1. Ask students to spend a few minutes looking closely at this image, then discuss as a class: What details stand out to you in this painting? How do you interpret this woman’s expression?
  2. In pairs, have students draft questions that they would ask this woman if they could. What are you curious about in her life?


Direct students to explore the Humanities Washington resource BlackPast. Ask them to search for current and historical Black women pioneers in France and former French colonies to explore the evolution of life for women of African descent in French societies. Possible figures to explore:

Leopoldine Emma Doualla Bell Smith
Rokhaya Diallo
Christiane Taubira
Véronique de la Cruz
Laura Élodie Flessel-Colovic

Students can present their research on their selected individual and discuss the barriers that she broke, as well as the obstacles that she may have continued (or continues) to face in French society.


  • How does this painting compare to Théodore Géricault’s Study of the Model Joseph? Consider the historical context of each painting’s creation, in the early 19th century (Géricault) vs. the late 19th century (Bazille). What feelings does each painting evoke? Which individual do you feel a stronger connection to and why?
  • Pair a discussion of this image with research on the work of French activist Assa Traoré. Who are the women calling for change in your own communities?


National Humanities Center—Journal of Charlotte Foten
Black French Women and the Struggle for Equality—Felix Germain and Silyane Larcher
Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in 19th-Century France—Robin Mitchell