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Dutch Golden Age art wasn't all about white people. Here's the proof.
The show includes 56 paintings, prints and art objects from the Dutch Golden Age, including seven by Rembrandt.

by Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rembrandt’s 1661 painting, “Two African Men,” is one of the Dutch old master’s more inscrutable works. One man, dressed in a Roman-style costume and shawl, seems to be giving a speech, while another man leans attentively over his shoulder. The canvas was painted with thin layers of earth tones and looks unfinished, but it bears the artist’s signature.

Why did Rembrandt paint it, and who were his subjects?

These were some of the questions that came to mind for Stephanie Archangel in 2015 as she found herself lingering in front of the work at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague.

A sociologist by training, she had been searching in paintings “for black people in which I could recognized myself,” said Archangel, who was born and raised on Curaçao, an island that was once a Dutch colony. Described by the Mauritshuis’ website as likely showing “free men who lived in Amsterdam,” Rembrandt’s portraits seemed “human and worthy,” Archangel said.

“It was the first time I saw black people in the 17th century painted by a Dutch master looking proudly back at me,” said Archangel, who is now a junior curator at the Rijksmuseum. “I was wondering if that was true or not, or if it was my imagination, or just my hope to see that kind of proud representation.”

At that time, Archangel worked in the education department at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. She contacted a curator there, Elmer Kolfin, also an art history professor at the University of Amsterdam, to ask whether there were other images like it from the Dutch Golden Age. He responded that there were, in fact many, but that they had often been overlooked.

This was the genesis of the current exhibition at the Rembrandt House, “HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time”, the product of a four-year process of research and investigation by Archangel, Kolfin and their colleagues at the museum.

The show includes 56 paintings, prints and art objects from the Dutch Golden Age, including seven by Rembrandt. (“Two African Men,” the inspiration for the exhibition, isn’t one of them, though; as a condition of its donation, it is never allowed to leave the Mauritshuis.) In addition, the exhibition includes 15 contemporary artworks linked to the subject matter.

“HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time,” is part of a cultural paradigm shift in the Netherlands, where the Dutch Golden Age has long been associated almost exclusively with the achievements — and the portraits — of the 17th-century white, mostly male elite. This so-called decolonization of museums has not been embraced by everyone, but for some people who have not seen their histories reflected in museum displays, it seems like a move in the right direction.

Archangel said that the focus of the show is on images that present “the many different roles that black people played in society, and the many different roles they played in paintings for artists.” The exhibition, she added, “portrays more than what we knew before, which were mostly images of servants and enslaved people.”

In the 17th century, the Netherlands was deeply involved in the international slave trade, but slavery was prohibited on Dutch soil. People of African descent who lived in the Netherlands at that time came as servants brought over by immigrant families, said Mark Ponte, an historian with the Amsterdam City Archives, and the lead researcher for the Rembrandt House exhibition.

Ponte specializes in early modern migration and the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Using marriage, birth and death records, he was able to reconstruct a network of about 100 black people who lived in Amsterdam during Rembrandt’s time. The women he identified were mostly servants in the homes of Sephardic Jewish families who had emigrated to the Netherlands from Portugal, and most of the men were Brazilian sailors who worked in the shipping trade.

Mapping their addresses in the city center, Ponte discovered that many lived in what is now called the Jewish Cultural Quarter, where Rembrandt once had a studio; some of them may have served as his models.

Ponte and the curators said they wanted to connect the black residents of Rembrandt’s neighborhood to the images the artist created. In total, Rembrandt created at least 26 images of black subjects, by Kolfin’s count (12 paintings, eight etchings and six drawings), and most of these were probably based on his neighbors, whether they posed for him, or he observed them on the street.

“Dutch artists like to paint what’s in front of them,” said Kolfin. From the 1620s to the 1660s, there was a marked increase in Africans in Amsterdam, he added, as evidenced by Ponte’s research. “But its’ been impossible to link the names to the faces, which is disappointing,” Kolfin added.

Rembrandt was certainly not the only old master who painted black subjects. Thousands of images of the African diaspora in European art dating back to antiquity are listed in “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” a series of 10 books, initiated in the 1960s and now released through Harvard University Press.

Black people can be found “in quite a large number of 17th-century images,” Kolfin said. “However, always small, or positioned in the background or a corner, always subsidiary.” When a painter featured a black figure as a central subject, he said, usually they would be cast in a biblical role, such as Caspar, one of the three Wise Men, or as a eunuch.

Adrienne L. Childs, an independent scholar who co-curated the exhibition “The Black Figure in the European Imaginary” at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum in 2017, said that the vast majority of those images are either stereotypical or exoticized portrayals. In cases of portraits, they were often used by the painter to signal the status of the white figures in the painting, since having slaves or servants was considered to be a sign of power and wealth.

“It’s great that they’re trying to find the more dignified images,” Childs said of the Rembrandt House’s exhibition. “But you also need to look at the ones that are not so dignified, because that’s where you’ll have your critical mass. You don’t want to whitewash that.”

The exhibition also includes a handful of artworks that feature offensive caricatures of black people. Greater emphasis, however, is placed on subjects who look “dignified and human,” as Archangel described them. These include Gerrit Dou’s stunning “Tronie of a Young Black Man,” from around 1635, depicting a man in a blue jacket, wearing a silver turban adorned with a feather. Dou was a pupil of Rembrandt and scholars believe he painted this image in Amsterdam, using a local model.

The exhibition also includes the only three known 17th-century commissioned portraits of black people by a Dutch painter, according to Kolfin. They are oil paintings by Jasper Beckx of the Emissary of Congo, Don Miguel de Castro, and his two servants, Pedro Sunda and Diego Bemba.

De Castro, who worked for the King of Congo, however, was not as “dignified” as Archangel would have hoped. During a negotiation in Brazil, he brought 200 slaves to the country as a gift to the Dutch, she pointed out.

It’s ironic, said Archangel. When you have a subject “with a face and a name,” she said, “it’s almost painful.”

Nevertheless, she was pleased to find so many pictures from the era. “Once you start searching, you find so many,” she said. “These are choices that we made and loans we got, and there were many more artworks out there that we asked for and didn’t receive. There was much more out there than I perceived there to be when I started.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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