Jean-Baptiste Belley, also known as Mars, was a native of Senegal and former slave from Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) who during the French Revolution became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred, France’s legislative chambers.
After buying his freedom and serving as a captain of the colonial infantry, he was elected to the Convention in 1793 during the height of the revolution. He was perhaps the first African and first former slave to be elected to a legislative body in any Western country. He presided over the Convention’s unanimous abolition of slavery and served as an active supporter of the rights of Africans in the French Republic.
Although he was recognized as a full citizen of the Republic, Belley had to struggle against institutional racism. He remained steadfast in helping the new country stay true to its formal claim of equality and liberty until losing his seat in 1797.
In the above painting by Girodet, he stands with the bust of Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a prominent Enlightenment thinker and abolitionist. His stylish relaxed pose was a popular way of portraying figures of the revolution. Many art critics also see in the painting the idea of the noble savage.