Oud Holland

Review of: 'Household servants and slaves' (2022)

April 2024


Review of: Diane Wolfthal, Household servants and slaves. A visual history 1300-1700, New Haven [Yale University Press] 2022

Traditionally, according to Diane Wolfthal, art historical scholarship has tended to treat the service class as a monolith with peasants and beggars functioning as a sort of stand-in for the different types of common people. However, the service class includes, though is not limited to, lower middle-class townspeople, the urban poor, peasants and the enslaved. As a result, there are different groups toward whom little or no scholarship has been directed. In this regard Wolfthal’s new book proves to be particularly valuable. Wolfthal explores servitude from the standpoint of the visibly unseen as well as objects that are often overlooked or placed out of sight as a result of changing attitudes. She takes a long and dynamic view of service across four centuries while paying particular attention to the workers ‘below stairs’ and maps the attitudinal malleability that accompanies the servant class in its odyssey from prop to personhood. As such, the idea of agency or the absence thereof is an underlying question that seems to pervade this work. Charting a dynamic course by way of media, location and figures over the course of five chapters, she remains realistic in her aims and conscious of the limitations that would position this project as incomplete.

The opening chapter is largely a historical overview of service-work in Europe from 1300-1700. Here, she is most concerned with the visual description of servitude and more specifically the ways in which workers are denied agency only to be treated instead as a ‘type’, meaning that they are defined in terms of their function and not their personhood. This is visible for instance, with an enslaved person wearing a collar or a servant made clearly identifiable on account of rolled up sleeves. Wolfthal finds that one of the most common ways in which service workers are denigrated is due to their portrayal as marginalia in illuminated manuscripts and she brings our attention to the variety of ways in which servitude is functionally communicated. Thus, the role and portrayal of active hands become a mark of one’s service and consequent denigration. There is also the matter of size, wherein servants are often portrayed as either physically different or smaller than the people whom they serve, the implication being that there is an inherent and determinative aspect to servitude. Wolfthal goes on to point out that not only are servants marginalised as part of a visual stratagem but that male servants in particular were prime subjects for this type of condescension. This chapter also makes clear that late medieval common folk are sometimes incorrectly perceived as a working monolith when the situation was in fact otherwise. Wolfthal differentiates between land-based labour and household service, making clear that though both groups were seen as functionally similar they bore different sensibilities. This was based on proximity to the head of household, which would in turn affect the manner of their portrayal. The reader is then reminded of the sacred desirability of service that equivocated labour with prayer, but this line of argument is tempered by Wolfthal’s acknowledgment that these perceptions of servitude were part of a dominant paradigm in which the service and labour classes were unable to speak for themselves.

Cover of Household servants and slaves. A visual history 1300-1700

Middle: Jacob Jordaens, The painter’s family, 1621-1622, oil on canvas, 181 x 187 cm., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, inv. no. P001549

Right: Nicolaes Maes, Interior with a sleeping maid and her mistress, 1655, oil on canvas, 70 x 53.3 cm., The National Gallery, London, inv. no. NG207

The second chapter takes a more individualised view of service in the Early Modern period. By this time, Wolfthal suggests that there was both an assumption of measured agency for some servants and simultaneously the retention of anonymity for others. Here, independent portraits of both servants and enslaved persons formed a distinct group with varying degrees of agency and were part of a then trending interest in different types of common people. Furthermore, Wolfthal implies that this increased visual interest in servant class agency is in part a result of a similarly augmented latitude within the artist’s own profession. Resultantly, we come to find service workers being visually regarded not simply in terms of their station but also their character, which alludes to their personhood. In this way, different ‘types’ of servants – be it vocationally or visually – may be reinterpreted in terms of newfound similarities such as personality, esteem or circumstances. Wolfthal also shows servants as a more complex entity during this period, affected as they are by an emergent world economy that is increasingly labour-dependent. This is made evident by the added influx of black Africans among the labour and service class. Wolfthal further suggests that there was increased autonomy among some servants such as those who were held in high regard or had a proximal relationship to the master or mistress of the household. The result is that the added function of servants as a negative foil for their masters was beginning to wane.

The third chapter discusses the role of service workers who are intimately connected with the household. This includes circumstances in which long-term service has rendered the worker as familial, or cases in which the worker is a relative or mistress, or even situations in which the mode of employment fostered emotional bonds. Whichever is the case, these types of servants were regarded with comparatively higher status given the proximity engendered by familial affection. Wolfthal also takes a further look at the role of the artist as both a member of this service class as well as in the role of a free agent with servants of their own. In this way, artists may become implicated in the class system as both servant and master, thereby creating a nebulous aspect to servant status. Under any of the aforementioned circumstances, Wolfthal suggests that intimacy of one sort or another is the purpose behind the portrayal of some servants. And, as an upshot of recognising this augmented agency, Wolfthal takes a brief and practical look at servants’ lives. She explores this aspect largely in print media, looking not at who they served but instead how. Wolfthal looks at the tasks of servitude and how they are documented in both western and non-western contexts. Modes of dress are examined as reference points for class distinctions and ‘otherness’.

In her final chapter, Wolfthal attempts to give a sense of the lived experience of the service worker. She does this by examining what would have been the servants’ material reality on a daily basis. Both miniature and life-sized objects are taken as indicators for the often back-breaking work that would have been expected of many servants in a variety of capacities. Through miniature objects like dollhouses, the work of the servant is afforded greater visual description, and especially so in the way that such workers needed to navigate the household from a materialist point of view. What they touched, cleaned, felt and polished would offer us a degree of tactile insight into the life of a household servant. It also allows us to step back from individuated tasks and to view the totality of work expectations within the general household. An undoubtedly unique benefit of Wolfthal’s approach to servitude in this respect is that it also allows us to glean some proximal idea of the down time for household servants. In examining objects such as dollhouses, we see where workers rested and took refuge at the end of the workday while also using that same space as a preparatory point for starting the workday. The types of spaces in which they sought to recover gives the reader some sense of their personal selves as well as the types of objects that helped them to achieve such recovery. Additionally, Wolfthal cites dummy boards as an idealistic stand-in for a class of people whose real lives were in a sense invisible, while at the same time confirming their existence, or at the very least an awareness of it. She draws our attention to domestic work tools that effectively function as markers of servitude. Items such as brooms and cleaning brushes imply the existence of servants who must wield them and by extension their obligation to return, though momentarily unseen. For Wolfthal, these objects are particularly complex given the fairly unfathomable mediation between visibility and class that they seem to imply. However, she suggests that sculpted furnishings are perhaps particularly troubling and especially so in the case of Blackamoor sculpture. These objects are a type of obsequious support that present as functionary statuary within the dominant imperialist paradigm. But Wolfthal rightly recognises them as representations of ideological propaganda. This is clearly the case given that their seemingly servile obeisance belies the reality of chattel slavery to which several European economies were tied. So, as is the case with painting, Wolfthal demonstrates that some types of sculpture are the product of a dominant perspective that is in clear contrast with the reality that they supposedly mimic. She also succeeds in showing that home furnishings can offer significant insights into Early Modern servitude. In her final chapter, Wolfthal expounds on a process of erasure that is directed toward the servants but in such a way that it indicates that they are not forgotten, but merely absent given that their tools operate as functional markers of their unseen presence.

Although paintings and prints are the popular media of choice, Wolfthal also covers late medieval illumination and later three-dimensional representations such as dolls, dummy boards and a variety of sculptural forms. Her analyses are both thematic and chronological, whose intersection often serves to earmark the shifting and contemporary attitudes to service at various points in time. As prior stated, this book does not run the gamut of servitude given its focus on household help. But what it does is to nuance the different proximities to personhood, as is evident in the author’s use of servant portraits by Frans Hals (1582-1666) and Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) among others. For instance, there is the double portrait of Catherina Hooft and her nurse in which Hals captures a sense of familial sentiment toward her and in so doing captures her function but in way that humanises her. A similar effect is achieved by Velazquez in his famous independent and highly dignified portrait of his slave, Juan de Pareja (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), to whom he granted freedom within nine months of completing the portrait. Pareja was also a signed witness to several of Velazquez’ contracts. In such cases, where affection or a sense of agency is apparent, the servant is positioned closer to personhood than ‘type’.  Two of the more powerful themes that Wolfthal explores are inclusion and absence. In terms of the former, two approaches are at work. The first is inclusion for the sake of contra-distinction, whereby the merit of inclusion is oppositional. In such instances, the servant is there as a mark of comparative difference in relation to the master or mistress of the household. The second approach relates to the different stages of unequal personal association ranging from kitchen workers to personal companions.

Wolfthal appears to ask that readers consider socio-political perspective as a determinant of erasure, given that the patron’s race, gender and class often dictated who was pictured and how. Furthermore, the weight of these factors varied according to the climate within which they were framed, including expansionist colonialism and emergent global capitalism. Further still, she argues that patrons, artists and art historians must all take some responsibility for the (continued) marginalisation and near anonymity of service workers. Such is Wolfthal’s argument given that (a) patrons wished to present a hierarchical ideal of domestic life; (b) many artists painted in a manner that was consistent with social attitudes toward service; and (c) art historians have failed to sufficiently interrogate this phenomenon. Social hierarchy as an aspect of service is shown to take on new meaning with the advent of colonialism. To that end, there is a small section in which Wolfthal draws our attention to examples in the decorative arts such as hallstands depicting Black Africans in chains - an extreme manner of erasure that was intended to remove any trace of identity except for their existence as a type.

Wolfthal is clear regarding the aims and limitations of her book, and one such limitation is her abbreviated consideration of non-European servants outside of a European context. She notes the fact that few artists had taken it upon themselves to foreground the household service class, let alone with any measure of personal agency. That said, while the size of the book limits the number of artists who can be considered in that regard, it is surprising to find that Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574) are mentioned merely as possible influences on Justus Sustermans (1597-1681). Their striking portrayals of household servants, such as Aertsen’s 1559 Cook by the Stove (Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts) are not discussed. However, Wolfthal gives insightful recognition that the peasant is not a stand-in for the entirety of the service class. As such, this book is a most welcome addition to the literature and highlights the need for both differentiation and further research into the visual depictions of the seemingly unremarkable business of servitude. It is well illustrated and amply referenced with an up-to-date bibliography which is an appropriate starting point for future studies of this type. Finally, she challenges the academy and its emphasis on upper middle-class values as the main way of looking.

Alistair Watkins
PhD Candidate
University of Toronto

A. Watkins, ‘Review of: Household servants and slaves. A visual history 1300-1700’, Oud Holland Reviews, April 2024.