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Imagining the Oriental South: The Enslaved Mixed-Race Beauty in British Art and Visual Culture, c. 1865-1880

Mia Bagneris, Tulane University

January 27, 2022 · 4:30 pm-6:00 pm · Virtual

Department of Art and Archaeology

Abstract: Using works like John Bell’s Octoroon (1868) and Robert Gavin’s Quadroon Girl (ca. 1872) as case studies, this talk explores Britons’ pronounced and continued fascination with the figure of the enslaved American mixed-race beauty—even and especially after the abolition of slavery in the United States rendered the potential of such figures as tools for abolitionist suasion obsolete. I analyse marked visual and rhetorical echoes between representations of the so-called “tragic” mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon and concurrent expressions of Orientalism. Ultimately, I argue that, against the upright image of Victorian England, the American South—and especially Catholic Louisiana—could be imagined as a place of luxury, debauchery, and desire, a perfect echo to the Orient in the British popular imagination and one made stronger by the perceived association of both regions with the traffic in pretty women as sex slaves.

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