Barbara Chase-Riboud

Barbara Chase-Riboud, (born Barbara Chase, June 26, 1939) is an internationally acclaimed visual artist, bestselling novelist and award-winning poet.

Established as a sculptor, Chase-Riboud attained international recognition with the publication of her first novel, Sally Hemings (1979). The novel has been described as the "first full blown imagining" of Hemings and her life as a slave, including her rumored relationship with President Thomas Jefferson.[1] In addition to stimulating considerable controversy, as mainline historians then continued to deny this relationship, the book earned Chase-Riboud the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best novel written by an American woman. It sold more than one million copies in hardcover[2] and it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.[3] It was reissued in 1994, and in paperback in 2009, together with her novel, President's Daughter (1994), about Harriet Hemings.

Chase-Riboud has received numerous honors for her literary work, including the Carl Sandburg Prize for poetry and the Women's Caucus for Art's lifetime achievement award.[1] In 1965, she became the first American woman to visit the People's Republic of China after the revolution.[4] In 1996, she was knighted by the French Government and received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.[5]

In 1996 Chase-Riboud was among artists commissioned for artwork at the preserved African Burial Ground National Monument, at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Her memorial, Africa Rising, was installed in 1998. From September 2013 to January 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented Barbara Chase-Riboud: The Malcolm X Steles, a survey of work created between 1969-2008. This traveled to the Berkeley Museum in 12 February - 28 April 2014. Her anthology of poetry from 1974 - 2008 is under press, as are her collected letters.

Early life and education

Barbara Chase was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only child of Vivian May Chase, a histology technician, and Charles Edward Chase, a contractor.[6] She was suspended from her middle school being accused, falsely, of plagiarism for one of her poems.[7] Chase displayed an early talent for the arts and began attending the Fleisher Art Memorial School at the age of 8. She continued her training at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art.[7] At 15, Chase won an award for one of her prints, which was subsequently purchased by the Museum of Modern Art.[6] Chase went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Tyler School at Temple University in 1957.

In that same year, Chase won a John Hay Whitney fellowship to study at the American Academy in Rome for 12 months. There, she created her first bronze sculptures and exhibited her work.[8] During this time, she traveled to Egypt, where she discovered non-European art.[8] In 1960, Chase completed a master's degree from Yale University School of Design and Architecture. After completing her studies, Chase left the United States for London, then Paris.

Marriage and family

In Paris, Chase met Marc Riboud, a photographer who was part of the Magnum group. They married in 1961. The couple had two sons together. They traveled extensively in Russia, India, Greece and North Africa.[8]

Years later they divorced. In 1981, Chase-Riboud married her second husband, Sergio Tosi, an art publisher and expert.[4]


In the late 1960s, Chase-Riboud began to garner broad attention for her sculpture. Nancy Heller describes her work as "startling, ten-foot-tall sculptures that combine powerful cast-bronze abstract shapes with veils of fiber ropes made from silk and wool".[9]

Her first solo exhibition was at the Galleria L'Obelisco at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy in 1957. Her first solo exhibition in Paris was at the Galerie Cadran Solaire. Her first museum exhibition in Europe was held at MOMA Paris.

In 1971, Chase-Riboud was featured along with four other contemporaries in a documentary about African-American artists entitled "Five." The segment on Chase-Riboud showed her installation in 1970 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, as well as the artist working in her studio.[10] Her work is in major corporate collections and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Geigy Foundation, New York; and Lannann Foundation, Los Angeles.[11]


Literary career

Sally Hemings: A Novel

Chase-Riboud first established her reputation as a sculptor and poet. In 1979 she gained widespread attention and critical acclaim for her writing with her first novel Sally Hemings. It was based on the life of Thomas Jefferson's quadroon slave of that name; she was a much-younger half-sister to his late wife and was rumored to have been his concubine for years. In the Summer of 1974 Chase-Riboud had met with editor Jacqueline Onassis to discuss her plans for the work, and Onassis persuaded her to write it.[15] Based on Jefferson's biography by Fawn M. Brodie, Chase-Riboud was among those who believed that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings. The young slave was nearly 30 years younger than the president and little had been documented about her life.

Chase-Riboud was the first writer to present a fully realized, fictional character of Sally Hemings, with a rich interior life. Finally Sally Hemings had a voice. The public accepted her portrayal of Hemings and could believe such a woman had a relationship with Jefferson. Sally Hemings was vivid as an American historical figure. Chase-Riboud's book became an international bestseller and won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in fiction by an American woman.[16]

It was so popular that CBS planned to adapt it as a TV mini-series. But mainline historians who were still "guarding" Jefferson as an icon of integrity put pressure on president William Paley to end the effort.[17] No adaptation was made at the time.

But, more than 20 years later, CBS produced Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000), a made-for-TV mini-series that portrayed Hemings' and Jefferson's relationship. This has been widely accepted since a 1998 DNA study showed a match between a Hemings descendant and the Jefferson male line.[17][18] Although some reviewers argued about the characterization of Sally Hemings, "no major historian challenged the series' premise that Hemings and Jefferson had a 38-year relationship that produced children."[17] The series featured a beautiful actress as Sally Hemings, as historic accounts of her agreed on her beauty. It also presented African Americans of a range of skin tones, representing the many Hemings mixed-race descendants.

A rearguard of Jefferson historians has continued to deny the possibility of a relationship, but in 2000 and 2001 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, and the National Genealogical Society independently announced their conclusions that Jefferson had likely fathered all of Hemings' children, based on both the DNA and other historical evidence.[19][20] This historic consensus has been reflected in academic writing about Jefferson and his times. The Smithsonian Museum and Monticello collaborated on a groundbreaking exhibition in 2012 in Washington, DC: Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, which explored Jefferson as a slaveholder and six of the major slave families. It said that Jefferson was likely the father of all Sally Hemings' children. The exhibit was seen by more than one million people.

Chase-Riboud explored the interweaving relationships between the Hemings' and Jefferson families; as Sally Hemings was a much younger half-sister of Jefferson's late wife, she was an aunt to his two daughters.

"In place of civic myths that deny America's mixed-race beginnings, Chase-Riboud turns to the Hemings family to unveil the historical presence of antebellum interracial relationships and the possibilities of a post-civil rights multiracial community."[21]

Artists, poets, and writers have been thoroughly exploring the Jefferson-Hemings relationship since then.

In 1991, Chase-Riboud won an important copyright decision, Granville Burgess vs. Chase-Riboud. She had filed suit against the playwright of Dusky Sally in 1987, shortly before a production was to open at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. She said his work infringed on her copyright for her novel Sally Hemings because it borrowed her fictional ideas. Judge Robert F. Kelly concluded that while

"laws were not enacted to inhibit creativity . . . it is one thing to inhibit creativity and another to use the idea-versus-expression distinction as something akin to an absolute defense -- to maintain that the protection of copyright law is negated by any small amount of tinkering with another writer's idea that results in a different expression."[22]

He also said,

"the similarity between the two works is so obvious and so unapologetic that an ordinary observer can only conclude that Burgess felt he was justified in copying 'Sally Hemings,' or at least that there was no legal impediment to doing so, assuming a few modifications were made." The resulting decision constituted a significant victory for artists and writers, reinforcing protection for creative ideas even when expressed in a slightly different form."[22]

Additional novels

Chase-Riboud continued her literary exploration into slavery with her second and third novels. Valide: A Novel of the Harem (1986) examined slavery in the Ottoman empire.[12] Her Echo of Lions (1989) was one of the first serious novels about the historic Amistad slave-ship revolt of 1839. Litigation over its cargo of slaves reached the United States Supreme Court and was settled in 1841 in favor of the Mende captives, who regained their freedom.

In 1997, Chase-Riboud settled a suit against DreamWorks for $10 million on charges of copyright infringement of her novel.[23] The author claimed that the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's film Amistad (1997) plagiarized her novel on the topic.[24][25] It was finally established that David Franzoni, the sole credited screenwriter on Amistad, had spent 3 years, beginning in 1993, writing a script based on Chase-Riboud's book, Echo of Lions. This was under an option held by Dustin Hoffman's Punch production. Chase-Riboud's book which she had sold to Dustin Hoffman's production company which Fransconi claimed he had never read. Burt Fields Dreamworks main lawyer was at the same time unknown to Chase-Ribouds attorneys a stockholder, lawyer and board member of Punch productions who did not rescue himself from the suit, on the contrary he managed to have Punch Productions dropped from the original complaint and Fransconi was never obliged to testify under oath." He may have carried over some of his thinking to his screenplay for Amistad.[26] When Chase-Riboud filed a second suit against DreamWorks in France, the dispute was quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed amount days before the 1998 Oscar nominations were announced.[27]

In 1994, Chase-Riboud published The President's Daughter, a work that continued the Sally Hemings story, by imagining the life of her and Jefferson's mixed-race daughter Harriet Hemings.[13] At the age of 21, Harriet left Monticello, given traveling money by Jefferson via his overseer, and went North. She settled in Washington, DC where her brother Beverley had already settled. Like him, she passed into white society. She married a white man, according to her letters to her brother Madison Hemings. He was the only one of the four surviving Hemings children who lived the remainder of his life identifying as African American.


Chase-Riboud's first work of poetry, From Memphis & Peking (1974), was edited by Toni Morrison and published to critical acclaim.[10] Her poetry volume, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra, (1987), won the Carl Sandburg Award in 1988.[12] In 1994, Chase-Riboud published Roman Egyptien, poetry written in French.[13] In 2014, Barbara Chase-Riboud published "Everytime a Knot is Undone, a God is Released".

Legacy and honors

Selected works





  1. 1 2 3 4 "Imagining Sally Hemings". Frontline. WGBH educational foundation. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  2. 1 2 "Barbara Chase-Riboud". African American Literature Book Club., LLC. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  3. "Chronology: History of a Secret", PBS Frontline, Jefferson's Blood, 2000
  4. 1 2 "Barbara Chase-Riboud". Voices from the Gap: Women Artists and Writers of Color. The University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 8 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  5. "People", International Herald Tribune, 23 March 1996
  6. 1 2 Smith, Jessie C. 1991. "Barbara Chase Riboud," in Notable Black American Women, p. 177.(Gale Cengage)
  7. 1 2 Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  8. 1 2 3 Smith, Jessie C. 1991. "Barbara Chase Riboud," in Notable Black American Women, p. 178.(Gale Cengage)
  9. Heller, Nancy G. (1987). Women Artists: An Illustrated History, P. 191. (Cross River Press)
  10. 1 2 Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  11. 1 2 "African Burial Ground Commissioned Artwork", General Services Administration
  12. 1 2 3 4 Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  13. 1 2 3 Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  14. Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  15. Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  16. Chase-Riboud, Barbara (2013). The Malcolm X Steles. Philadelphia Museum of Art. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-87633-246-7.
  17. 1 2 3 "The History of a Secret". Jefferson's Blood. PBS Frontline. May 2000. Retrieved June 20, 2011.Quote: "More than 20 years after CBS executives were pressured by Jefferson historians to drop plans for a mini-series on Jefferson and Hemings, the network airs Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. Though many quarreled with the portrayal of Hemings as unrealistically modern and heroic, no major historian challenged the series' premise that Hemings and Jefferson had a 38-year relationship that produced children.
  18. Foster, EA; Jobling MA, Taylor PG, Donnelly P, de Knijff P, Mieremet R, Zerjal T, Tyler-Smith C (1998). "Jefferson fathered slave’s last child," Nature 396 (6706): 27–28. doi:10.1038/23835. PMID 9817200. 
  19. "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, accessed 22 June 2011. Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF and most historians now believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings."
  20. Helen F. M. Leary, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001, pp. 207, 214 - 218 Quote: Leary concluded that "the chain of evidence securely fastens Sally Hemings' children to their father, Thomas Jefferson."
  21. Salamishah Tillet, "Chap. One: Freedom in a Bondsmaid's Arms", in Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination, Duke University Press, 2012, p.28
  22. 1 2 Cohen, Roger. "Judge Says Copyright Covers Writer's Ideas of a Jefferson Affair", New York Times, 15 August 1991
  23. Weinraub, Bernard. "Filmmakers Of 'Amistad' Rebut Claim By Novelist", New York Times, December 4, 1997
  24. "The second Amistad case: 'Outright Plagiarism' or 'Who Owns History?' Chase-Riboud v. Dreamworks, Inc., 1998". The Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
  25. "DreamWorks publicly accused by Chase-Riboud of plagiarism of 'Black Mutiny'", Variety, 4 December 1997
  26. Kim Musters, "The Studios Aging Bulls," Vanity Fair, April 1998
  27. "'Amistad' Libel Case Settled," Variety, 10 February 1998
  28. "People", International Herald Tribune, 23 March 1996

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