The Hottentot Venus: an alternative iconography.

Author:Wright, Alison E.

Saartjie, or Sara, Baartman (d1815), a Khoisan woman from the Cape of Good Hope who was exhibited in Europe in 1810-15 as the 'Hottentot Venus', is an easily recognised figure in British satirical prints. A dark-skinned woman with an enormous, ballooning bottom, shown in profile and wearing a few items of supposedly traditional costume, she became something of a minor stock character in the 1810s and 1820s--the latter end of the golden age of visual satire--featuring in at least 19 distinct designs. (1) Baartman, previously a domestic servant in Cape Town, travelled to London to be exhibited in 1810, at the urging of her employer; she toured Britain more widely in 1811-12, then disappeared from record until the exhibition moved to Paris in 1814, where she died. (2) During a six-month exhibition period on Piccadilly, having already made something of an impression on Londoners, her fame was increased by a court case brought by the African Institution, which believed her showmen were illegally and degradingly controlling her as a Slave, and by her surprising testimony that she had entered into a contract to make money from her display (the case was dismissed; her actual degree of duress is not known). The figure of Baartman that appeared in satirical prints was copied from an aquatint profile 'portrait', made as an advertisement for, and souvenir of, her exhibition in London, which appears to have been very well known to contemporaries.

Historians who have examined British satirical representations of Baartman have tended either to situate them primarily in the context of popular entertainments, or to interpret the repetition of an exaggerated and demeaning profile as confirmation of essentialist, unquestioning racism in Baartman's reception in Britain. (3) The use of profile to depict a racial body is a rhetorically powerful visual mode, used in the measuring and standardised comparison of sets of heads and bodies, and connected to the development of racist physical anthropology. (4) It is notable that nude, anatomical profile studies of Baartman were also made in the same period, at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, in 1815; she was later dissected at the same institution, making her a crucial early specimen for racial comparative anatomy. (5) Early 19th-century advertisements and 'satirical prints, however, can sustain a more nuanced reading, and are valuable resources towards some kind of reconstruction of British popular, non-specialist attitudes to Baartman the character, to her interesting body and its racial significance. (6) This essay challenges the idea that Baartman's popular image among her contemporaries and in the following decades was limited to a simplistic, racially defined profile, through an examination of the significance and effect of an alternative viewpoint, the frontal representation. Key to this is an 1817 lottery handbill with a caricatured frontal portrait of the Venus, apparently not previously discussed in the literature, which links an 1811 frontal advertisement portrait of Baartman with a previously obscured seam of satirical imagery relating to the Hottentot Venus phenomenon. At the same time, I hope to indicate the richness of satirical imagery as a resource for unpicking the complicated reception and legacy of that ironic, insulting confection, the 'Hottentot Venus'.


The appeal of Baartman's big-bottomed image to British graphic artists, as with her exhibition's success in Britain, can be ascribed to the common understanding of what 'Hottentots' represented, and to the curiosity value as well as to the graphic and humorous potential of her body shape. The idea of a 'Hottentot Venus' was inherently satirical to Baartman's British contemporaries, 'Hottentot' being the derogatory European term for the Khoikhoi people of the Cape, who since the late 16th century had been designated as being amongst the most primitive, bestial and objectively ugly examples of humanity; in Britain the word 'Hottentot' was by extension used as an insult to describe a rude, uncultured or stupid person. (7) The suggestion that the supposedly ugly and unsophisticated Baartman was considered an epitome, a perfect 'Venus', by her people presented her as an ironic embodiment of relative aesthetics, the theory that racial features that failed European aesthetic ideals would none the less be considered beautiful by other cultures; contemporaries referred to her attractiveness with heavy irony. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that contemporary responses to Baartman seem to have focused on physical aspects--her darkness, physiognomy and body shape--as the index to the nature and appeal of the show, although costume, music and other forms of performance were also part of her exhibition. Baartman's dissection and transformation into a 'type' specimen of the Khoisan at the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle confirm the intensity of interest in her body.

Popular imagery of Baartman helped to construct, disseminate and reflect this readable body. The British visual representations of Baartman that have been discussed in the greatest depth are two aquatint portraits made to advertise the Hottentot Venus show: an almost nude profile view, titled Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus (18 September 1810), issued at the beginning of the show's run and from which most of the satirical prints of Baartman were copied, and a frontal, more clothed view published six months later, Sartjee, the Hottentot Venus. Exhibiting at No. 225, Piccadilly (14 March 1811) (Pl 1, Pl 2). (8) Both advertisements are usually attributed to the professional aquatinter Frederick Christian Lewis: the second is signed 'Lewis Delin et Sculp.', indicating the printmaker's responsibility for both the design and the working of the plate. The similar size, use of the same medium and the model's stance show that the second aquatint was designed primarily to complement the first, but the visual strategies of the two prints have been read quite differently by modern historians. In an insightful discussion Z S Strother has argued that the choice of the profile pose, with its isolating and objectifying viewpoint of Baartman's body, is an intentional strategy to represent a 'type specimen' rather than the individualised portrait shown in the second advertisement, and that it is 'not surprising' that satirical printmakers chose this demeaning and prejudicial image to copy. (9) Certainly, three satires etched by the young William Heath in 1810, in which the Venus is a mare character, adapt the profile figure to show an ungainly, morose, naked Baartman in undignified situations--having her posterior measured with compasses, or crowing about her beauty in a display between a dwarf and an albiness. (10)

Nonetheless, it is important to recognise the novelty and appeal of this portrait to Baartman's contemporaries, and its remarkable graphic qualities, to which the existence of so many satirical copies is itself strong testimony. It is an impressively achieved and detailed aquatint, a medium that requires some skill. The tone and texture of the bare flesh excite the viewer's curiosity about the 'other', as does the fairly intricate (if brief) 'exotic' costume. Some elements of the costume might have been familiar from depictions of 'Hottentots' in travel literature that had remained fairly stable since the 16th century, such as the heavy mantle (kaross), cap, staff and pipe, and a wrapper or apron (only just visible). The face-paint, patterned beadwork and tassel decorations, however, were much more recent additions to 'Hottentot' iconography, elaborate beadwork only having been depicted in detail in Frangois Le Vaillant's popular travel guides, the Voyage dans l'interieur de l'Afrique (Paris, 1790) and the Second voyage dans l'interieur de l'Afrique (Paris, 1795). (11) These are presumably the ornaments brought with Baartman from Africa specifically for her exhibition, and which were noted as an attraction in the promotional literature (see below). The careful rendition of 'authentic' clothing, jewellery and face-paint is undermined for modern viewers by the knowledge that Baartman, an urban servant, would not regularly have worn such apparel, but for contemporaries its novelty and informative content would certainly have been an additional or equal attraction to the curious and 'amusing' foreign body delineated. (12)

Secondly, and of great importance for graphic artists, the print is a considerably dynamic image, for all its uncomfortable connotations for modern viewers. The strong, darkly outlined curves and angles--already an exaggeration of Baartman's actual body shape--were easy to simplify even further, leading to the pared down, sometimes geometrical treatment of the figure in some caricatures, such as the spherical bottom in Cruikshank's Double Bass (10th May 1811), or the rising ovoid posterior and taut outlines of Charles Williams' Love and Beauty--Sartjee the Hottentot Venus (October 1810) (Pl 3). (13) Apparently a living embodiment of caricature, Baartman was in a fairly rapid way assimilated into a number of existing visual caricature tropes that were applied to white Britons. The billowing, bottomy forms of a range of natural and fashioned British bodies were fondly and frequently depicted in satirical prints--plump women, the notorious padded petticoat fashions of the 1780s, even the ever-expanding prince regent--to which Baartman was a natural addition. (14) She was most closely compared with the 'Broad Bottoms', a broad Whig faction led by Lord Grenville, prime minister in 1806-7, who was rumoured to be re-forming a ministry just at the moment Baartman arrived in London. Grenville himself was traditionally caricatured with a bulbous posterior, a visual analogue for his broad political base, but also for self-satisfaction and privilege: an appropriate model, given Baartman's supposed self-regard as a great...

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