Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2011
Africans in Black and White: Images of Blacks in 16th- and 17th-Century Prints
Exhibition schedule: Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, September 2–December 3, 2010
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. Baptism of the Eunuch (1641). 16 x 21 cm (6 5/16 x 8 1/4 in.). Harvard Art Museum, Fogg Art Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7294. Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Image Number: INV191836. Accession Number: 41.2000.

The European tradition in the graphic arts began in the fifteenth century, and early prints are notable for a bold and rapid exploration of new subjects and themes. Given the much expanded degree of interaction between Christian Europeans and black Africans that developed during the 1400s, one might imagine that printmakers would have been eager to depict persons of color. Yet the first attempts to do so were halting, and for a paradoxical reason: graphic artists had a hard time showing dark skin because light and dark were rigorously employed as chiaroscuro elements to evoke form, rather than the hue of individual objects. This choice little show of twenty objects at the Neil L. and Angelica Zander Rudenstine Gallery at Harvard University’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research traced the means by which European printmakers overcame this obstacle between ca. 1500 and ca. 1700. The exhibition’s thematic organization illuminated the rich variety of roles in which black Africans were cast during this era.

The exhibition, curated by David Bindman and Anna Knaap, grew out of “The Image of the Black in Western Art” research and publication project, begun by the Menil Foundation in the 1950s but more recently sponsored and directed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Du Bois Institute. Bindman and Gates are the editors of The Image of the Black in Western Art series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), of which three reprint volumes and one new volume have just been issued (2010), with four further volumes to come in 2011–12. (I am a contributor to that series, but have no connection to this exhibition other than having spoken at a symposium held in conjunction with it.) All but four of the works in the exhibition were lent from the collections of the Harvard Art Museums; one print is owned by the Du Bois Institute itself. Though “The Image of the Black” project, while still under the sponsorship of the Menil Foundation several decades ago, had generated a traveling exhibition of photographic reproductions of Western images of black Africans, this is the first time that the project has led to a show of original works.

In every case, the artists were Northern Europeans, with Germany and the Low Countries predominating. Italian printmakers did produce images of black Africans, but in significantly smaller numbers and with less sophistication, though one exception to this rule is to be found in the etchings of Stefano della Bella from the 1630s and later. One print in the exhibition, a portrait of the Kongo ambassador to Pope Paul V Borghese, was made in Rome, but by a probably Franco-Flemish artist. The odd object out in the show—but one of its most striking revelations—was not a print but rather a large reproductive watercolor, painted by John Ruskin in Turin in 1858, after a black African figure in a huge painting by Paolo Veronese. This unusual picture has been in Harvard’s collections since 1907, when it was donated by Charles Eliot Norton, the pioneering American professor of art history. Norton had acquired the work in 1900 from Ruskin’s estate, of which he was the executor, and in Norton’s eyes the watercolor must have had an array of powerful, troubling meanings, not the least of which was that it embodied Ruskin’s virulently racist condescension toward people of color.

The exhibition was composed of three sections—“Biblical Subjects,” “Allegory and Mythology,” and “Real People.” Though there was some overlapping, these themes broadly corresponded to three sequential chronological stages, with the portraits dating to the 1600s and beyond. The quality of the impressions was generally excellent, which is crucial to an accurate evaluation of the means by which the artists were able to evoke black African identity. One of the most telling points made by the curators in their clear, accessible, and learned wall-texts is the shift (in the early 1600s) from profile views to three-quarter or even frontal facial poses. This shift they persuasively attributed to the greater availability of black African models in the studios of Rubens, Rembrandt, and others. The profile views allowed a greater and more simplified emphasis on the characteristic shapes of noses and lips normatively associated with black African physiognomies, and this was especially important in the sixteenth century, when printmakers were still reluctant to depict skin as dark for fear of disrupting systems of modeling. With more familiarity with actual African visages, and a willingness to experiment in depicting brown complexions, seventeenth-century graphic artists produced more striking representations of black African identity. The exhibition proposed the 1691 mezzotint portrait of the Ethiopian Abba Gregory (who brought much knowledge of Ethiopian Christianity to European scholars) as a key work in creating a nuanced but unmistakable system for conveying dark skin. Almost as remarkable, however, is Wenzel Hollar’s 1635 etching of a bust-length black African page-boy, with its painstaking creation of a dark complexion through hatchings and stipplings. Framed in an oval, and very small in scale, this work evokes the numerous carved cameos depicting black Africans made in such centers as Milan and Prague during the later 1500s and the first years of the following century.

The exhibition included two images of naked men (in both cases the eunuch of the Queen of Ethiopia being baptized by the Apostle Philip), but these are outshone by two female nudes. Hendrik Goltzius’s figure of Darkness (engraved by Jan Muller, 1589) is one of the most fascinating renderings of a black African woman from this era, with her athletic build and pose, shadowed body, and recognizably African facial features. The other female nude is Rembrandt’s controversial Black Woman Lying Down, an etching of 1658; not all scholars have agreed that it depicts an African woman. This was the only work in the exhibition which fails to include a face, as the woman is turned away from the viewer. Especially in prints, facial physiognomy was generally crucial in confirming black African identity because of the risk of confusion over the visual meaning of chiaroscuro effects. Such effects were dominant in Rembrandt’s late painting and printmaking, and the curators properly expressed skepticism about whether a black African subject was actually intended here. In a talk at the symposium held in conjunction with the exhibition in mid-November 2010, Elmer Kolfin of the University of Amsterdam pointed out that no written reference to this work before 1797 describes it as an image of a black African subject. Nevertheless, it was important to include this famous etching in the show, and its presence in the context of so many other renderings of black Africans was extremely illuminating.

In several of the biblical narratives in the earlier part of the exhibition, bows and/or arrows are associated with exotic but not dark-skinned figures in the entourage of the Magi or the Ethiopian queen. In two of the works in the final section, however, a bow and arrow appear as the primary attributes of a black African character. In Du Mortier’s 1608 engraving and etching (the exhibition incorrectly describes it as exclusively an etching) of Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda, the King of Kongo’s ambassador to Paul V, these weapons along with a shirt of net-like fabric called an nkutu serve to mark this black emissary as from a non-European culture. There is even a delicate little frieze of bows and arrows in the architectural frame to the portrait. (Ne Vunda’s 1629 tomb in S. Maria Maggiore in Rome retains the quiver of arrows, but omits the bow.) Nevertheless, it is not clear that Ne Vunda in fact carried such weapons, and another similar engraving depicts him without the bow and arrow and in stylish European dress. In Johannes Visscher’s smoothly elegant genre portrait of a black African youth with bow and arrow from ca. 1655–60, the text suggests the figure is hunting in the wilds of Africa, but (as the curators pointed out) he wears a jacket of European cut and looks more like a page at some princely European court. In both cases bow and arrow, perhaps borrowed from the developing iconography of depictions of Native Americans, seem to be artificial props rather than observed details.

While U.S. museums began to mount exhibitions dedicated to the theme of the representation of African Americans in the 1960s, it has taken much longer for institutions to come to grips with the history of European depictions of people of color. In this respect the Black is Beautiful show held at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam in 2008, dedicated to images from the Low Countries, was especially important. The video produced in conjunction with that exhibition was displayed in the Rudenstine Gallery, but I found it a little distracting in the close confines of the gallery space. Prints were a significant component of the Amsterdam show, though they were somewhat overshadowed by larger and flashier paintings, and only two of the works at the Du Bois had previously appeared at the Nieuwe Kerk. There is also likely to be some overlap with the forthcoming exhibition (late 2012) on sixteenth-century images of Africa and Africans at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Africans in Black and White made a provocative and successful foray into an area that will continue to attract attention from scholars and a wider public.

Paul H. D. Kaplan
Professor of Art History, School of Humanities, Purchase College, SUNY