The First Black Model in a Major American Fashion Magazine Was French

The First Black Model in a Major American Fashion Magazine Was French
Art Historian Wendy A. Grossman Tells Us about Man Ray’s Muse Adrienne Fidelin About a year ago, I reviewed the ground-breaking exhibition The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse, which was on view at the Musée d’Orsay from March 26 through July 21, 2019. In preparation for that review, I attended a symposium in New York organized by the curator Denise Murrell, Ph.D. during her exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, at the Wallach Gallery on Columbia University’s Manhattanville Campus (October 24, 2018-February 10, 2019), the show that gave birth to its Parisian version. At that symposium, I met the vivacious art historian and curator Wendy A. Grossman, Ph.D., who was investigating the life story of the Guadeloupean dancer and model Adrienne Fidelin. Fortunately, Dr. Grossman stayed in touch and sent me her April 2020 publication on Fidelin, available for open access on the Modernism/modernity website. Dr. Grossman is a Curatorial Associate at The Philips Collection in Washington, D.C., and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, where she offers courses on art history and the history of photography. Her prodigious list of publications on Man Ray, African art, photography, and the reception of these images can be found in anthologies and academic journals produced in the U.S., France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, the U.K, and other international publishers. Among the exhibitions she has curated, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, 2009, is still available for study in her magnificent award winning catalogue (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). She has won numerous awards, fellowships and grants for her research on Man Ray. For Adrienne Fidelin, well, here she shares her experience and observations. In addition to her most recent essay, Dr. Grossman’s publications on Fidelin include two collaborations with writer Sala E. Patterson: an essay for Le Modèle Noir catalogue and an entry for The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biographies (edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Oxford University Press, 2016). Dr. Grossman is at work on a book-length manuscript that expands upon these publications. Beth Gersh-Nešić: Dr. Grossman, you recently published an exciting article entitled “Unmasking Adrienne Fidelin: Picasso, Man Ray, and the (In)Visibility of Racial Difference,” in Modernism/modernity vol 5, cycle 1 (April 24, 2020), in which you reveal the previously unknown identity of the sitter for Picasso’s Seated Woman Against Yellow and Pink II, aka Portrait of a Woman (September 8, 1937). You convincingly argue that this is Adrienne Fidelin (1915-2004), a young dancer from Guadeloupe, who met Picasso through her current lover Man Ray. Please tell us, which came first: discovering the mysterious Picasso portrait from 1937, the year Picasso and Dora Maar spent a summer holiday in the South of France with Fidelin and Man Ray, or your work on Man Ray, whom you have written about for quite a while now? Wendy A Grossman: I was introduced to Ady, as I’ve come to know her through years of investigating her life’s story, literally through the lens of Man Ray. The starting point for my research was a critical examination of photography’s instrumental role in the transformation from artifact to art in the Western reception of African objects. This was in 1991 in the wake of the controversial 1984 exhibition at MoMA, Primitivism in 20th Century Art. As a photo aficionado, I was struck by how marginalized the medium as an art form was in that project. And intrigued by a brief passage in one of the opening essays that mentioned in passing Man Ray photographs of models sporting Congolese headdresses. Ady, it turns out, was the model most frequently featured in the artist’s so-called Mode au Congo series. One image from that suite of photographs was featured in a 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, inadvertently and unceremoniously making Fidelin the first black model to defy the fashion industry’s intractable color barrier and appear in a major American fashion magazine. My curiosity about the Mode au Congo images and the story behind them launched me on a journey that ultimately led to the discovery of the Picasso painting in which Fidelin has been hidden in plain sight. BGN: Can you tell us a bit about Adrienne Fidelin. How did she meet Man Ray? WAG: Piecing together disparate bits of evidence to recreate Fidelin’s story has often seemed like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is no memoir, significant body of personal writings, or meaningful accounts of this figure either by her contemporaries or scholars of the era. It is through the mining of correspondence, archives, genealogical sites, and the plethora of images in which she appears that her story is finally starting to come together. Ady was born on March 4, 1915 in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe to one of the island’s oldest Creole families. The exact date she moved to France is uncertain. But we know that it was subsequent to the 1928 cyclone that…

Lead photo credit : Man Ray, Ady Painting “Le Beau Temps,” 1939, gelatin silver print, Paris, Eva Meyer Collection, © Man Ray Trust 15/ADAGP Paris 2020

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Purchase College in Westchester, New York. She has recently published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art."


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-07-06 11:04:52
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Utterly fascinating! Thanks Beth and Wendy.