James Baldwin & The Toilette of Venus

James Baldwin is having a revival of sorts, in 2020 and continuing in 2021, in the mass media as renewed attention is brought to his writings on civil rights.  The Fire Next Time is again being referenced for its eloquent prose and condemnation of American racism.  

In Jed Jackson’s painting, titled, The Toilette of Venus, the James Baldwin image plays a pivotal role.  The image of Baldwin works in counterpoint with the image of Boucher’s The Toilette of Venus.  The two visual representations—the Baldwin and Boucher images—are the only two within the painting itself.  

Born in New York City, James Baldwin (1924-1987), rose from poverty to become a leading intellectual advocating for civil rights.  His ascent was through books.  In 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain was published which tells the story of a young man breaking away from his family ideologies determined to make it on his own.  In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris where he lived for the rest of his life.  

The Fire Next Time, 1963, is regarded as one of the 1960s most influential books on race relations. 

Jackson in a written statement established “pretension” as the main theme of this painting.  The painting improvises on the 18th-century idea of the “salon” where wealthy socialites entertain in their homes a select group of socially prominent people — literary figures, artists, or statesmen.   

The scene of upper class affluence is a party hosted by the man in the center of the painting, a wealthy African American gentleman who appears to be a book collector.  Jackson has said that though the black host has moved into this realm he is ill at ease. The man’s expression, according to Jackson, “is a commentary on the scene taking place, a commentary on pretension and artificial, political relationships.”  

The visual sign, or clue, connecting Jackson’s painting to a 18th-century ideology of the salon is the image on the book’s cover, Boucher’s The Toilette of Venus, 1751.  

Boucher’s time is the Rococo period, just before the Enlightenment.  Salon evening get-togethers were popular then, as they are today.  Jackson associated hypocrisy and pretentiousness with salon gatherings.  It was something he experienced first hand while living in New York City.  

But Jackson is not finished.  Remarkably, the artist depicted a black man as host and adds, critically and significantly, the painting’s pivotal sign, an image of James Baldwin.  

The Baldwin image brings to the painting a host of new associations and comparisons.  As we know, Baldwin excoriated against racism in America.  Racism is a social order based on a false perception that is promulgated by affecting greater importance than is warranted.  In a word, racism is pretentious.  

Jackson associates the two orders, racism and salons, as orders of pretension and condemns both.  

JED JACKSON (b.1954) Fayetteville, Arkansas, The Toilette of Venus, 1990-91, Oil on wood, Museum Purchase 1996.05. Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Mt. Vernon, IL.