Racist image of Michelle Obama based on Versailles painting


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A baldly racist depiction of First Lady Michelle Obama that appeared Tuesday on a right-wing website is based on a 1775 portrait of Marie Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty (1740-1786). The full-length painting hangs outside Paris in the Palace of Versailles.

The Internet image grafts Obama’s face onto Gautier-Dagoty’s lavish depiction of the French queen, dressed in full regalia. It also replaces the draped left arm of the young monarch, then barely 20, with a muscular black arm and shifts the position of the right hand to place it in front of a world globe.

The caricature of Obama as a profligate queen relies on the racist stereotype of an ‘uppity Negro,’ which emerged among slave masters in an earlier American era. Obama, born into a working-class Chicago family whose roots are traced to the pre-Civil War South, graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, prior to holding several high-level positions in the academic and private sectors.


The racist image appeared Tuesday on the right-wing blog Gateway Pundit; the slur was later called out by Media Matters for America. A post by Gateway blogger Jim Hoft paired the picture with a clip of the first lady’s guest appearance on a forthcoming episode of ‘iCarly,’ a Nickelodeon sit-com. In the script, Obama commends the cast for their support of military families. Responding to a cast member who mistakenly addresses her as ‘your excellency,’ the script has Obama jokingly reply, ‘I kinda like it.’

The doctored painting also turned up in August 2010 on the right-wing Instapundit website, where it apparently originated.

Gautier-Dagoty is not a well-known painter, but the royal portrait at Versailles is probably his most accomplished work. His father was an influential publisher of color graphics in Paris, and Gautier-père’s five sons, including Jean-Baptiste, joined him in various aspects of the business. Ironically, given the Internet caricature, that Paris business was a formative ancestor of modern mass-media.

Jacques-Fabien Gautier had been inspired by the industrial production of textiles in the family’s hometown of Marseilles, a port city from which woven and printed fabrics were shipped and sold around the world. He decided to apply the concept to pictures. Before then, most prints were produced in black ink, while hand-coloring was too expensive for wide distribution.

Relocating to the capital, Gautier started a company that copied oil paintings as colored engravings, distributed natural history, medical and other scientific prints, and produced color plates for periodicals. One color acquaint by Gautier-Dagoty shows a painting of the king’s mistress, Mme. Du Barry, being served in her boudoir by a young black slave. The company’s innovative production techniques caused the family to be known, perhaps erroneously, as the inventors of color-printed pictures.

But the roaring commercial success of the business is undeniable. Dominating the French industry in the 1700s, it laid the groundwork for the later development in France of mass-produced chromolithographs -- color images that arguably represent the dawn of modern mass-media. Photography soon followed. Like the Internet today, color printing spread visual knowledge far and wide. But there was a steep downside: It also created an avenue for the broad dissemination of propaganda -- some of it disgusting.



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Images: At left, the Gateway Pundit website’s reworking of the Jean-Baptiste Andre Gautier-Dagoty painting with Michelle Obama. Right, Gautier-Dagoty’s ‘Marie Antoinette,’ 1755, oil on canvas; Credits: Left, Gateway Pundit. Right, Palace of Versailles