The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is planning to open an exhibition on slavery in autumn. Meanwhile, the Rembrandthuis Museum (Rembrandt House) opened a small exhibition in March, referring to this problem from a local perspective. „HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time” seeks for an answer to the question of who were the black figures that can so often be found in the paintings from Rembrandt’s time. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t able to see this exhibition. However, I spent the quarantine time studying the catalogue and here I am sharing with you (my) most interesting discoveries from this reading.
Amsterdam was one of the most important trading centres in the 17th century. Goods from the farthest corners of the world passed through its port, and foreign sailors came with them. Some settled in the city in search of income, among them were Africans. Researcher Mark Ponte found that a small African community lived in the district where Rembrandt’s house was located. This gave the artist an opportunity to capture some of his “neighbours” in paintings. The sailor’s earnings were not enough to support the family on their own. Hence the need to look for other sources of income – women were employed as household helpers, while young people looked for casual jobs as extras in the theatre or as models in art studios, often dressed in “stage” costumes.
The tradition of placing black figures in religious scenes, especially in the adoration of three kings, has existed in painting since the 15th century. Two hundred years later Pieter Lastman gave an impulse to place black models also as outsiders in biblical or historical scenes, shown almost always as servants. He also reached for the biblical theme of the baptism of the Ethiopian queen’s courtier (also known as the baptism of the eunuch), which can later be found in other artists work, including his brilliant pupil Rembrandt. Researchers emphasize that the cultural context played an important role in reaching for new solutions. Most importantly individual reading of the Bible, as well as an extremely popular history of the Jewish nation, written by the ancient author Joseph Flavius. Both of them contained imaginative references to the presence of black people in the ancient world (as well as to slavery).
Rembrandt did not limit his interest in black models to using them only as background characters. Each time the artist experimented with the means of expression in order to find a unique way of capturing the similarity of the features, mood or facial expressions of the depicted person. Sometimes he made the models wear eastern costumes to bring their appearance closer to Biblical figures. He later used such sketches either to build a story in a painted scene or left it in the form of tronies, a study of physiognomy or emotional state.
The interest of painters in black models was particularly intense between 1620 and 1670, but they did not delve into the complexity of black people’s psyche as much as Rembrandt. A Family group with a black man by Willem Cornelisz Duyster comes from an early period. Members of a large family are placed around a table and engage in small interactions. Among them we see a figure of a dark young man, dressed according to the current fashion and probably serving the family. This boy seems as an independent individual, he looks into the viewer’s eyes, as everyone else does, and his outfit is more colourful than the people around him.
It is often difficult to determine the status of the black servants shown in the paintings. Although slavery in Amsterdam has been formally forbidden since 1644, many newcomers from the Iberian Peninsula, who settled in the city, came with their domestic slaves, who rarely had the opportunity to claim their rights. Also the way of depicting the dark servants in the paintings was transforming in accordance with changing artistic and economic trends.
In the late 1940s, under the influence of the fashion for portraits by Anthony van Dyck, the way in which black figures are portrayed changes. They are no longer family members, as we saw with Duyster. Instead, they appear as colourful dressed boys serving a single portrayed character: pouring wine, fastening a bracelet or holding a horse. They become one of the props, a marker of status and wealth, at the same time deprived of identity or individual history. If we were to rely only on these paintings, we would consider that the majority of the black in the Netherlands were boys between the ages of eight and thirteen who acted as a page. Only a small percentage of that could be true. The tradition of buying African children as travel presents and companions for the lonely wives left at home was quite common among wealthy marine captains.
Around the middle of the 17th century, the United Provinces of the Netherlands became involved in the slave trade. Johan Maurits von Nassau Siegen, who was governor of the Dutch colonies in Brazil for less than a decade, is considered to be the founder of their commercial power in this field. During this time, he secured the supply of cheap labour from West Africa, forming alliances and conquering ports in the area. He took with him a team of scientists and artists to describe the new lands. However, slavery was not reflected in this art. The paintings of Frans Post, one of the painters at the service of Maurice, ignore the basic principles of functioning on sugar and tobacco plantations: inequality, slavery and exploitation. Instead, they show the peaceful coexistence of various social groups against the background of a vast exotic landscape. An almost utopian vision of the free world has been created, missing an opportunity to show the realities of life in the colonies in Brazil.
One of the Netherlands’ trading partners was the Kingdom of Congo. The exhibition presented three unusual portraits related to this cooperation. These are images of the Dom Miguel Castro, the envoy of the Kingdom of Congo and his two servants. Dom Miguel went to Brazil seeking help from Johan Maurice to resolve the local conflict in the Congo. He brought two hundred slaves with him as a gift. He also travelled to the Netherlands, where he was portrayed in Middelburg together with his servants on the commison by the West-Indian Company. Dom Miguel’s wears an outfit which he probably received as a gift from Johan Maurice: a silk tunic embroidered with silver and gold, a velvet cloak and a black hat with a wonderful feather, all according to latest European fashion. He has chosen this outfit himself, probably as a way to secure the support of Europeans by becoming more like them.
At the same time, this creates the opposite effect to that which Rembrandt obtained in the portrait of two young black men, currently stored in Mauritshuis in The Hague. We don’t know their names, they have been lost in time. All we can suspect is that they lived on one of the streets in the neighbourhood of the Rembrandt house. Maybe they lived from work at sea, or maybe they are just entering adulthood? They wear the theatrical costumes that the artist dressed them in, but this does not deprive them of authenticity. They are full of life, emotions, one seems to be joking, the other – maybe his brother – seems a bit intimidated. The bond between them is noticeable. Despite their modest status, they are not inferior to the dignity of the people of Dom Miguel and his servants, portrayed in all their seriousness and formalities.
The creators of the exhibition closed it with a show of contemporary Dutch artists with African roots. From the reproductions available to me, an image of a diverse and vibrant community emerges.