“Much awaited” declares the jacket copy on this handsome book, Part 1 of the missing link in the great series of a generation ago, The Image of the Black in Western Art, begun under the auspices of the de Menil Foundation. That project did produce volumes on ancient, medieval, and modern European art, but it lacked the ‘early modern’ volume(s) when Africa and slavery played such a new role in the history of Europe. Now adopted by the Harvard DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research, the series has been republished with this crucial omission newly filled. Moreover, as Part 1, this volume promises at least one sequel, principally by Jean Michel Massing on Flanders (to be reviewed upon appearance) and a third volume for the long eighteenth century by co-editor David Bindman. Up until now Bindman’s own book, Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the 18th Century (Cornell, 2002) has had to serve for that early phase of racial thinking in relation to imagery. A highly useful, if largely literary anthology, edited by T.F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, considers Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, 2005). In the meantime, a valuable recent catalogue (2008, reviewed in this journal April 2010), produced for an Amsterdam exhibition with an unfortunate title, Black is Beautiful. Rubens to Dumas, has provided a foretaste of these volumes. Interested readers will also want to know the crucial article overview by Peter Erickson, “Invisibility Speaks: Servants and Portraits in Early Modern Visual Culture,” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (2009), 23-61.
What, then, does this first volume contribute? It wavers between broad survey essays about various countries and more focused studies of individual artists or themes. Joseph Koerner, local to Harvard, provides the essay of greatest interest to HNA specialists in earlier art, though his focus is “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” (7-92), since the Adoration of the Magi provided one of the main occasions for representing blacks in religious art. Ironically, that topic was already broached ably by Paul Kaplan in his published dissertation (UMI, 1983), The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art, and Kaplan has provided the largest survey essay of the volume, “Italy, 1490-1700” (93-190). To those contributions, Victor Stoichita adds an overview of Spain (191-234) and Bindman assesses England for the same period of the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries.
Again more specialized, a penultimate essay on “Rembrandt’s Africans” (271-306) was contributed by Elmer Kolfin, a participant in the Black is Beautiful catalogue as well as the author of a monograph on Dutch slavery imagery from Surinam (1997). A final essay by Joaneath Spicer completes the volume with a surprising study of a fourth-century tale, Aethiopika, by Heliodorus of Emesa, revived in the art of France and Holland during the seventeenth century (307-35).
One clear point, advanced by Bindman in his Introduction and by Koerner in his essay, is that ‘the black’ cannot be reduced to a monolithic reference; moreover, very few images of black individuals can be characterized either as portraits or as representations of real figures posing as models. Of course, this volume does briefly discuss Dürer’s silverpoint drawing (1521; W. 818, Uffizi; 56-57), an individual black woman, a Portuguese servant he met in Antwerp and calls Katharina in his diary; but it does not take up the seeming portrait of an African man by Mostaert (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; Bulletin, 2005, 380-433), though perhaps that panel painting is reserved for Massing’s volume. Other black servants, even slaves, whether depicted from life or as stereotypes, do appear in the Bindman essay on England; other examples from Holland appear in Black is Beautiful or in Julie Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age(Yale, 2007), 193-227. But in our era of complex awareness of representations, especially of ‘others,’ all of the terms of the series title itself present dilemmas, compelling analysis.
Thus in a brief review, a good pressure point to interrogate the varied roles and functions of blacks in early modern art is Kolfin’s essay – about a single artist but a wide spectrum of representations. Blacks appear in crowds as accessory figures and witnesses (The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, ca. 1635; Berlin); as servants within biblical subjects (Detroit Visitation, 1642; New York Bathsheba, 1643); but also as the very focus of one Gospel narrative (Acts 8: 38), The Baptism of the Eunuch (painting, Utrecht, 1626; etching, B. 98, 1641), a foreign chamberlain who even has his own black servants. Kolfin asserts that Rembrandt derived this version of biblical depiction from the previous generation of history painters, especially his own teacher Peter Lastman. Kolfin thus identifies their presence with a goal of history painting: to present a variety of observed details.
For isolated figures, Rembrandt’s 1661 Two Africans (Mauritshuis) seems like a portrait, and it has evoked gushing responses, though commentators (including Kolfin) seldom have observed that the same figure seems to reappear, albeit dressed in costume that resembles antique armor; thus the Hague work as a figure study resembles Rubens’s four heads from the same black model (Brussels; slated to appear in the next volume). Kolfin even claims that its source might have been a sculpted head (297). Less posed, less formal figures also appear in studies, especially a tiny early etching, African Woman (B. 357), which looks like a tronie (perhaps re-used in the Visitationservant). More ethnographic are two figures with accessories in a drawing study of foreigners, Two Drummers on Horseback (ca. 1638; British Museum). Finally, a faceless figure study, which cannot be definitely classified as black, since her skin might as easily be shadowed as pigmented is Rembrandt’s late etching, Reclining Black Woman (B. 205, 1658; misdated as 1656), itself a variant on the reclining female nudes of Venetian pictorial tradition. Questions of determining genres as well as finding models for African figures await further clarification.
Thus it is probably too early to judge the success of Part III of this compendium; however, after waiting for a generation, early modernists can only rejoice at this first installment and eagerly await Massing’s second volume, to come.
University of Pennsylvania