The image of an African servant and a bunch of flowers is very significant to mid-nineteenth-century French painting. It features in a number of the period’s most challenging paintings, including Edouard Manet’s notorious Olympia (1863).
African Woman with Peonies is among Bazille’s most sophisticated canvases, and sadly one of his last. The servant arranges the bunch of flowers in an image that makes clear Bazille’s art historical credentials. The density and clarity of the flowers recall the Dutch tradition of floral still lifes, and the application of paint and the subject itself refer to Bazille’s keen interest in Manet and Gustave Courbet. But the painting also indicates Bazille’s own important contribution to both art history and to French politics. He reminds us that the African servant, the bunch of flowers, and the highly glazed earthenware pot were all equally objects of beauty and commercial exchange.