Selika Lazevski remains a mystery. We know nothing about her, including her real name. All we have are six sizzling portraits taken in 1891 at a famed Parisian studio. We do know she possessed a ferocity that stirs us to this day.
The photos of Selika Lazevski are currently held in the collection of the French Ministry of Culture. In the Paris Review (February 9, 2018) equestrian author Susanna Forrest examines the collection of negatives and the scarce notes that accompany them.
According to Forrest, even the name Selika Lazevski “ slips and multiplies: the Ministry of Culture lists her as Lazevski, Lavzeski, Lavezewski, Larzewski, and Laszewski.”
The following tidbits are all we can glean from these fabulous portraits of Selika Lazevski.
For perspective, slavery had been permanently abolished in French colonies following the Revolution of 1848. Many black and mixed-race people from the French Caribbean settled in the northern part of Paris. Although their options for work were generally limited, they were free wage earners. Women most often eked out their livings as domestic servants, street vendors and sex workers.
In America Harriett Tubman led a Civil War raid in 1863 that freed more than 750 slaves. Madame C.J. Walker became the first female to become a self-made millionaire in the United States with her hair care dynasty in the late 1900s and early 20th century. In 1892 Sissiereta Jones became the first African-American woman to headline Carnegie Hall.
While progress was being made, images of dark-skinned women were scarce in 19th-century paintings and photographs. When they were portrayed, it was often as highly sexualized bare-breasted slaves.
Selika Lazevski was one of the exceptions in her series of striking portraits. She stared with unwavering confidence at her audience, holding a gaze similar to Monet’s Olympia.
Monet’s painting triggered a scandal at the 1865 Paris Salon by shattering the traditional treatment of the female nude. He broke another norm by giving equal weight to Olympia’s assistant portrayed by a dark-skinned model.
In 1891, Selika Lazevski held herself with bold control.
Selika dressed in two different outfits for her portraits. Both were period riding habits. According to Forrest, the costumes portrayed her as a higher-level horsewoman. She most likely would have ridden Haute ecole or classical dressage in which the horse leaves the ground.
Classical dressage was the most prestigious role for a female rider or performer. A favorite venue was the fashionable Nouveau Cirque at 251 Rue Saint-Honoré. The upscale New Circus (February 12, 1886 – April 18, 1926) was an upscale venue at which formal dress was required. Owned by Joseph Oller who co-founded Moulin Rouge, the New Circus was lit completely by electric lights.
We can only wonder if Selika rode horses or possibly performed in Paris. Or was she merely in costume for her portrait?
There is no documentation to prove that this was her real name. Selika was a popular name among dark-skinned women. It was the name of the heroine of L’Africaine, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1865 opera.
Madame Marie Selika Williams also used it for stage purposes. She was a coloratura soprano and the first black woman to sing at the White House. The name also became popular among horse owners. In 1894, a filly named Selika famously won the Kentucky Oaks.
It is also possible that Selika took the surname Lazevski from the Polish circus horseman and haute école rider Valli de Laszewski. He and his French wife Lara worked at the Nouveau Cirque during that time.
They were taken at the Nadar Studio on rue d’Anjou. It was famous for its portraits of celebrities. At the time the photos were taken, the studio belonged to Paul Nadar. He was the son of the more famous photographer and writer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Known simply as Nadar, he innovated experimental techniques, which he utilized in his commercial work. The elder Nadar photographed scores of celebrity clients. Among them were Edouard Manet, Sarah Bernhardt, Jules Vernes and George Sand.
Given the time frame, it is doubtful that either Nadar or his son took these portraits.
The images were made into Cartes de visites, portraits mounted on a cardboard stock. They were exchanged between family members, friends and new acquaintances, just as simple calling cards had been exchanged before them. People collected these cards in albums and displayed them in their parlors.
Victorian Cardomania spread to England after John Jabez Edwin Mayall photographed the British royal family in 1860. An avid scrap booker, Queen Victoria fueled the trend. The public began collecting images of family and friends as well as celebrities and popular public figures. Celebrity Cartes were sold much like postcards. People mounted celebrity photos in their scrapbooks beside those of their own family and friends.
Was Selika Lazevski working on self-promotion? Or was she an unknown beauty who was merely documenting her image for generations to come?
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