At last! HNA’s readership, dominated by a historical focus on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has chiefly remained outsiders to the foundational studies of this series of references about the Image of the Black in Western Art. Two years ago, however, their first exposure to this topic during the early modern period appeared in a wide-ranging initial volume of essays, with pertinent contributions by Joseph Koerner on the black magus “circa 1500” and by Elmer Kolfin on the black in Rembrandt’s art (reviewed here April 2011, 28: no. 1: 36-37). But the focus of that earlier collection still lacked attention to the wider field of Netherlandish art in the era of European voyages of exploration.
Now, culminating two decades of his own researches into this wider topic, starting with the great Washington exhibition catalogue, Circa 1492 (1991-92), Jean Michel Massing (University of Cambridge) fills in those missing materials about a scholarly lacuna that had become a chasm. His scope, truly global, encompasses depictions of Blacks in Africa as well as South America and the Mediterranean (Part One) and then analyzes images of Black Africans in Europe itself. Massing attends primarily to work by Flemish and Dutch painters, but he also includes Italian and German artists; moreover, his range of media is particularly dazzling, including prints, maps and travel books, as well as luxury decorative arts that amplify his cultural perceptions. Very few art historians have the boundless curiosity of Massing, which he displays fully in this seminal study. Twenty years is a long period to devote to research, but this volume more than justifies the wait.
This book begins with the woodcut frieze ethnography of Africans by Hans Burgkmair, recently studied by Stephanie Leitch (Art Bulletin 91, 2009, 134-59; not cited). It also notes the Orientalism, based out of Venice, where Blacks as Ottoman slaves appear in travel imagery as well as early costume books. In one highlight, Chapter Four appropriately investigates figures on early maps of Africa as objects of art historical study – a move also advanced by Susan Dackerman’s recent exhibition, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (2011; reviewed here November 2011, 28: no. 2, 22-23). Chapter Five crucially addresses early travel books, previously unstudied by art historians, highlighted by Dutch works on the Indian Ocean by Linschoten (1596) and Lodewicksz (1601), and by Pieter de Marees on Guinea (1603; on this latter volume a study is forthcoming by Elizabeth Sutton with Ashgate). Later travel books about Africa, notably Olfert Dapper’s publication by Jacob van Meurs (1668; such books will be the subject of a future study by historian Benjamin Schmidt) extended the claims of eyewitness accuracy and ethnography (though Dapper was an armchair traveller).
Real and fantasy portraits of African rulers began with Jan Vermeyen’s now lost paintings of Mulay Hassan and Mulay Ahmad of Tunis, the latter copied by Rubens (figs. 83, 85) as a reliable head study for his own imagery of black magi (Vermeyen’s portraits survive in prints). But in South America the black slaves imported to work in the harsh conditions of Portuguese and Dutch sugar plantations were documented for Europe by Theodor de Bry in his imagery of the Americas (1590) as well as in the manuscript local history by Andean native Guamán Poma de Ayala (ca. 1615). Most of images of Blacks in Brazil were produced during the brief Dutch occupation under Prince Maurits van Nassau-Siegen by Dutch painters, led by Albert Eckhout and Frans Post (curiously, Massing does not cite a major study on Eckhout: Rebecca Parker Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise, 2006).
According to the extended discussion on “The European Scene” (Chapter Nine), portraits of visiting African dignitaries and their servants begin with Jan Mostaert (Amsterdam) in the sixteenth century but chiefly appear a century later. The African-like features of Alessandro de’ Medici are duly noted here, but his portrait by Pontormo appears only in a copy (fig. 143), whereas the original on panel is in Chicago (Carl Strehlke, Pontormo, Bronzino, and the Medici, 2004, cat. no. 25). For the most part, however, portraits of Blacks within Europe featured servants or grooms depicted with their employers, such as Van Dyck’s Elena Grimaldi (Washington; fig. 144) or Frans Hals’s Family Group (Madrid, Thyssen coll. fig. 150); such Dutch representations have been discussed by Julie Hochstrasser (Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Republic, 2007, 204-27).
In Chapter Ten, Massing focuses on Blacks in Christian religious imagery, including some overlap with the previous volumes, but he carries the discussion well into the seventeenth century and also introduces some novel subjects, especially the Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8: 27-39) and the African military saint, Maurice (also Volume II, Part 1; Gude Suckale-Redlefsen, Mauritius: Der heilige Mohr, 1987, also sponsored by the De Menil Foundation as is the present series). The generalized missionary impulse (Chapter Eleven) is epitomized by Rubens’s Miracles of Francis Xavier (Vienna; fig. 214).
Under the general rubric of representing Africa, Chapter Twelve shows personifications of the continent with representative fauna, including exotic hunts by Rubens (figs. 227, 229) and Jan van Kessel’s allegories (figs. 232-33), bordered by animals as well as city views. This kind of figuration carries over into the final chapter, “The World of the Collector.” There appear decorative objects, ranging from cameos to goblets to metal table fountains, and mounted exotica (plus even the pendant for the Danish Order of the Elephant, fig. 254). Yet still one might wish for more, especially work like a Moor’s Head pokal (ca. 1600; Munich; see Lorenz Seelig, “Christoph Jamnitzer’s ‘Moor’s Head’: A Late Renaissance Drinking Vessel,” in T.F. Early and K.J.P. Lowe, eds., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Cambridge, 2005, 181-209 – a very useful related anthology). Finally, though it lies outside the Massing portfolio, one would like to see other collectibles about Africa, particularly porcelains, such as the 1745 J.J. Kaendler Meissen personification on a lion.
Finally, of course, one can only applaud Massing’s masterful survey, which can provoke the quest for further objects or more extended analyses. If I have occasionally added a few further references here, it is only out of real enthusiasm to pursue his important investigations, just as the editors of this series intended.
University of Pennsylvania