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Linked Lives: Poet Madeleine Le Cesne

From Haiti and Paris to London and New Orleans

This new short film reveals a network of little studied, largely unknown connections between two paintings in neighbouring London galleries.

The National Gallery’s portrait of The Comte de Vaudreuil (1758) by François-Hubert Drouais visualises the connections between art and the trade in enslaved people more than any other painting of the period. In the painting, the Comte, son of the governor of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), points at a map of the land (and, by extension, people) he owns there. The wealth accumulated from which is not only displayed in the painting but also paid for the commission itself.

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 (1841) by Benjamin Robert Haydon is a monumental painting recording the 1840 convention of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society which was established to promote worldwide abolition. In it, you can see a frail and elderly Thomas Clarkson (17601‒846), who originally formed the group in 1787, addressing a meeting of over 500 delegates. This picture is at the National Portrait Gallery.

For poet Madeleine Le Cesne, these two paintings are linked not only by history but by her family’s story. Watch our new short film Linked Lives to hear Madeleine's story and to find out how we traced a portrait in London to this poet and scholar from New Orleans.

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You can read Madeleine’s poem inspired by her family history here.

Linked Lives

This Linked Lives film is a collaborative project between Queen Mary University, New York University and the National Gallery. It combines research from scholars of French art, empire and colonialism with the National Gallery’s collection, provenance and art historical research, and innovation design processes.

Links between these paintings have been drawn by Dr Hannah Williams (Senior Lecturer in the History of Art, Queen Mary University, London) and Dr Meredith Martin (Associate Professor of Art History, New York University), who have recently launched a five-year research project titled Colonial Networks: Re-Mapping the ‘Parisian’ Art World (ca. 1750–1830). Their research project focuses on an annotated 1786 map of sugar and coffee plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), where many high-profile members of the Parisian art world are named as land- and slave-owners.

Sprint sessions were run as part of the National Gallery’s NGX innovation programme between late 2022 and March 2023 to explore how such a collaboration might be visualised. And in January 2023 a workshop with a group of researchers, producers, and community outreach teams was held here to explore which medium most effectively communicated the complex network of stories behind key paintings from the Gallery’s collection.