Oud Holland

Review of: 'Black in Rembrandt's time' (2020)

February 2022


Review of: Elmer Kolfin and Epco Runia (eds.), Black in Rembrandt’s time, Zwolle [WBOOKS] 2020

While scholars have long investigated the lives and identities of the white figures in the art of Rembrandt’s time, it has only been in recent decades that the same attention has been granted to the Black lives pictured in these works and described in contemporary literature and documents. The catalogue Black in Rembrandt’s time, which accompanied the 2020 exhibition of the same name, examines a broad range of seventeenth-century artworks, publications and archival records picturing, describing and documenting Black people living in the Netherlands and its environs. It brings much-deserved attention to this subject, which has traditionally suffered in terms of scholarly neglect.1 To atone for this critical silence, Black in Rembrandt’s time joins a growing chorus of voices seeking to bring equity to that artistic and historical record, and in doing so it marks a significant contribution to the field. The contributing authors – Stephanie Archangel, Elmer Kolfin, Mark Ponte, Epco Runia, Marieke de Winkel and David de Witt – frame their essays around several critical questions that aim to create a greater understanding of representations and experiences of Black people living in Holland, mostly Amsterdam, between 1620 and 1660.

What did images of Black people convey in seventeenth-century art produced in the Netherlands? Specifically, what is the relationship between Dutch involvement in the slave trade, and depictions of Black people in their art? To what extent were people living in the Netherlands aware of the slave trade? What is the relationship between the presence of Black people in art and their physical presence in Amsterdam? Is there a correspondence between the way Black people were depicted in art and the way they were described in texts? How did the Black people living in Rembrandt’s neighbourhood inform his art? These questions set the tone for an honest and well-considered exploration of the presence of Black people in the art, literature and historical documents of Rembrandt’s time. Furthermore, in the museum’s desire to ‘reflect on ourselves and change our perspectives’ and ‘bring great nuance and, above all, richness to our interpretation of the past’, there is also an implicit understanding of how the stories told of that past, generate meaning in the present.2

The essays in the catalogue – implicitly and explicitly – question a broader tendency to see representations of Black people in images and texts from the seventeenth century as intrinsically – and exclusively – bound to the slave trade. The breadth of the source material, which includes paintings, prints, drawings, printed versions of theatrical productions, literature and archival material, demonstrates that such a position is not only reductive, but also perpetuates the violence of slavery, which denies any other identity beyond ‘enslaved’. This approach to the material is crucial, as it sets the stage for the catalogue’s main argument, which is that between 1620 and 1660 a fair portion (but by no means all) of the art and literature produced in and around Amsterdam largely eschewed stereotyping and racism, which became more typical by the end of the seventeenth century, and beyond. The meanings generated by these images and texts, the authors suggest, were varied, complicated, unstable and by no means uniform.  

Kolfin’s essay, ‘Black in the art of Rembrandt’s time’, takes a broad view of the types of images in which Black people appeared in the Netherlands at this time, calling into question assumptions that the Black people in these images would have been enslaved. As is well known, slavery was not legal in the Netherlands – yet it was in its colonies – and, as Kolfin argues, it is unclear the extent to which people living in Holland were aware of the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, which weren’t pictured in the era’s art. The images discussed by Kolfin vary considerably, and include history paintings featuring Black characters and observers, tronies of Black figures in ‘exotic’ costumes, portraits depicting white sitters with Black servants and much less formal head studies. That we know nothing of the identities of the figures depicted in these images is deeply frustrating, especially in works like Wallerant Vaillant’s (1623-1677) elegant mezzotint, Portrait of a Black man, in which the sitter’s presence feels palpable (fig. 1). The sensitive realism of this work presents a jarring contrast to the aestheticised images of enslavement common in many portraits at the time, such as Michiel van Musscher’s (1645-1705) portrait of Thomas Hees (1634-1693), whose ‘servant’, Thomas, is depicted wearing luxurious garments, an ornate ‘slave collar’ and other ‘exotic’ accoutrements (fig. 2). Drastic disparities between these two images, which were produced around the same time by two different artists active in the same city suggest that there remains much to learn about what it meant to represent Blackness in seventeenth-century Holland.

Left: Cover of Black in Rembrandt’s time.

Center right: fig. 1. Wallerant Vaillant, Portrait of a black man, c. 1664-75. Mezzotint, 144 x 140 mm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1911-66.

Center: fig. 2. Michiel van Musscher, Thomas Hees with his nephews Jan and Andries and his servant Thomas, 1687. Oil on Canvas, 76 x 63 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-C-1215

Center right: fig. 3 Rembrandt, Two African men, 1661. Oil on canvas, 77.8 x 64.4 cm. The Hague, Mauritshuis, inv. 685.

Right: fig. 4 Ornamental stone plaque (gevelsteen) with a black man with a tobacco leaf, 1625-1650. Amsterdam, from Jodenbreestraat 93, incorporated into the front of Lindengracht 211 in 1973. (Photograph: John Bezold).

Mark Ponte’s essay, ‘Black in Amsterdam around 1650’, debuts archival research that traces a growing community of Black people – often sailors and current or former servants – living in close-knit neighbourhoods in areas near today’s Jodenbreestraat, not far from Rembrandt’s home. Ponte examines a range of documents that shed light on these communities, including registers of cemeteries where the Black servants of Portuguese Jews were buried, and especially marriage and baptismal records, and wills. His research reveals that Rembrandt would have encountered ‘dozens’ of Black people on the streets of Amsterdam, including women, who seem to have played a key role in forming and maintaining these communities. Despite the importance of these women in the community, most images of Black people from this time feature only men – including the painting that was one of the inspirations for the exhibition, Rembrandt’s 1661 Two African men from the Mauritshuis (fig. 3). Based on archival research and the intimacy of this pair, Ponte puts forward the proposition that Rembrandt painted Bastiaan and Manuel Fernando, brothers from the island of São Tomé, who lived near Rembrandt’s home. This convincing suggestion cannot, of course, be confirmed because there are no documents that identify the sitters with certainty. This lack of definitive evidence underlines a common scenario that unites all the works in the catalogue and is frequently commented upon by the authors: while white artists, painters and sitters are often (but not always) known by name, the Black figures who feature in many of these paintings, almost never are. 

Stephanie Archangel’s essay, ‘“As if they were mere beasts”: Descriptions of the Black body in seventeenth-century Dutch’, focuses on the changing and unstable meanings generated by the description of Black bodies in published seventeenth-century literature. Archangel notices a pattern, whereby published literature from the early part of the century – like Pieter de Marees’s 1602 Beschryvinghe ende historische verhael van het Gout Koninkrijck van Gunea – differs significantly in character from works published after the Dutch Republic became deeply involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Texts like Olfert Dapper’s (1636-1689) 1668 Naukeurige beschrijving der Afrikaensche gewesten, for example, paint a picture of Africans as ‘uncivilised, sex-mad, savage, ignorant and liars’ whereas De Marees’s Beschryvinghe – although Eurocentric in its own way – describes Africans he encountered with more subtlety and curiosity.3 Dapper’s text, which was published in multiple languages and widely distributed, promoted an idea of the Black body that contrasted sharply with texts and images produced in the earlier part of the century. There is a tension, however – Archangel argues – between these disparaging descriptions of Africans as a homogenous group, and the laudatory and often affectionate sentiments reserved for the individual servants. A tension that is mirrored in some images made during this time.

Building on Ponte’s research, David de Witt’s essay, ‘The Black presence in the art of Rembrandt and his circle, addresses new questions about the images of Black people created by artists working in Rembrandt’s orbit. Beginning with Pieter Lastman’s (1583-1633) repeated representation of the Baptism of the Eunuch, De Witt considers the intersection between the lived experience of the artists residing in the vicinity of the Sint Anthoniesbreestraat, and the artistic training and conventions that informed their practice. As De Witt argues, the inclusion of Black people as subjects in paintings such as the Baptism of the Eunuch, St. John preaching in the wilderness, and Christ before Pilate would have been the result of the artist’s own self-reflection on the expansive Roman Empire – which included parts of Africa. It may also have stemmed from the artist’s everyday experience of encountering Black people on Amsterdam’s streets. For artists in Rembrandt’s circle, who prioritised working ‘naar het leven’, or from life, such encounters would have provided the impetus for a range of new compositional experiments. 

There are nine short interludes between the essays discussed above, which offer the reader spaces for reflection and contextualization. Following Kolfin’s discussion of the many unidentified Black figures in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, for example, is a short essay on the formal portraits of Congolese envoy Don Miguel de Castro and his two servants Pedro Sunda and Diego Bemba. These paintings, Kolfin notes, represent the only images of Black people made by Dutch artists at this time that can be securely identified. We also learn through archival documents of Pieter Claesz Bruijn of Angola and Lijsbeth Pieters of Brasil, who were married in 1644, lived in Rembrandt’s neighbourhood, and acted as witnesses in the baptisms of other Black members of their communities. Another interlude introduces Christiaan van Africa, a servant living in Amsterdam, whose will reveals he was a man of means – research that sheds light on the diversity of the lives of free Black people living at the time. The reader is also asked to consider images that stereotype the Black body, which include not only seventeenth-century images on tobacco paper, but also early twentieth-century examples of advertisements for tea, coffee and tobacco. Here one laments the fact that the Rembrandthuis did not choose to include an image of Zwarte Piet, which – as Kolfin, Ponte and Archangel have spoken and written eloquently about in other contexts – draws directly from the images of Black servants produced by Dutch artists in the seventeenth century.4

The authors are clear about the goals and scope of the catalogue: to examine images of Black people made by Rembrandt and his circle within the context of their own time and place. It must be acknowledged, however, that these images continued to generate meaning after their point of production, just as they continue to be reassessed today. Not only did images of Black servants provide the visual inspiration for the racist figure of Zwarte Piet, but many city streets continue to bear the burden of such imagery, forcing pedestrians to confront the past in public spaces. The caricatured Black figures carved in stone on building façades in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, for example, create an urban environment in which Black bodies are still othered and objectified today (fig. 4). Nevertheless, there is a great benefit in the catalogue’s limited temporal focus for it gives readers a glimpse into the visual sources, literature and documents that contributed to, and constituted, the ‘cultural archive’ in Holland between 1620 and 1660. This ‘cultural archive’ – as Gloria Wekker has conceived of it – ‘foreground[s] the memories, the knowledge and affect with regard to race that were deposited within metropolitan populations, and the power relations embedded in them.’5 As Wekker argues, the modern Dutch ‘cultural archive’ has a deep and layered history that is inextricably bound to the period of time that is explored by Black in Rembrandt’s time. Examining the period at its roots is an important step toward understanding and acknowledging the racial inequities that continue to exist today.

One of the great contributions of this catalogue, then, is that it lays the groundwork for thinking about how art, published texts and archival documents work together to generate asymmetries of power that informed the historical record. For woven into the structure of many of these cultural artifacts, are subtle – or sometimes not-so-subtle – mechanisms for creating difference, which prioritised and espoused perceived norms against which everything else was judged. Whether it was the way in which portraits of wealthy, white sitters in the second half of the seventeenth century associated servitude with Blackness, as in Musscher’s portrait of Thomas Hees and his servant, Thomas; or the way documents often identified Black people partially, or exclusively, by their perceived ethnicity, as in the account that described the ‘Moorish girl’ who earned five guilders for ‘singing 20 times’ in the play Zabynaja at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam; or the way in which the biblical story of Noah and his cursed son, Ham, was used to justify the transatlantic slave trade; or even the way that the names of figures in Rembrandt’s Two African men remain absolutely impossible to identify with certainty, due to the low status that was afforded to Black people living in Amsterdam at the time. In short, the inequities of seventeenth-century Holland were systemic and ingrained, making our access to Black identities of the past limited by the lenses through which we now view them – something the authors understand well: ‘We always see seventeenth-century black people from the white perspective; as far as we can tell, both artists in the Netherlands and the people for whom they made their art were all white.’6 As the authors demonstrate, however, reading against the grain of the ‘white perspective’ can yield fresh insights, and one hopes that the interdisciplinary and collaborative work of Black in Rembrandt’s time will serve as a model for future scholarship.

Carrie Anderson
Middlebury College


1 It is important to note that the past decade has brought many important contributions, including V. Boele, E. Schreuder, E. Kolfin, Black is beautiful: Rubens to Dumas, Amsterdam 2008; J. Spicer, N. Zemon Davis, K. J. P. Lowe, B. Vinson, Revealing the African presence in Renaissance Europe, Baltimore 2012; and – most recently – E. Sint Nicolaas and V. Smeulders (et al.); Slavery, Amsterdam 2021D. Jaffé and E. McGrath (et al.), Rubens. A master in the making, London 2006; D. Bindman, H. L. Gates Jr., K C. C. Dalton (et al.), The image of the black in Western art, Volume 1 & II, Cambridge 2010; E. McGrath, 'Rubens and his black kings', in Rubens Bulletin II: Aanbidding der koningen (2008), pp. 87-101; E. McGrath, 'Goltzius, Rubens, en de schoonheid van de nacht', in E. Schreuder and E. Kolfin (eds.), Black is beautiful. Rubens tot Dumas, Zwolle 2008, pp. 50-70; E. McGrath, 'Caratyids, page boys and African fetters. Themes of slavery in European art', in E. McGrath and J. M. Massing (ed.), The slave in European art. From Renaissance trophy to abolitionist emblem, London 20212, pp. 3-39.

2 L. de Koekkoek, ‘Foreword’, in E. Kolfin and E. Runia (eds.), Black in Rembrandt’s time, Zwolle 2020, p. 4.

3 S. Archangel, ‘Descriptions of the Black body,’ in Kolfin and Runia 2020 (note 2), p. 77.

4 See, for instance, the 2021 speaker series, Art Museums and the legacies of the Dutch slave trade: Curating histories, envisioning futures, presented by the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Harvard Art Museums and Harvard University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture (Parts I & II).

5 G. Wekker, White innocence. Paradoxes of colonialism and race, Durham and London 2016, p. 19.

6 E. Runia, S. Archangel and E. Kolfin, ‘Introduction’ in Kolfin and Runia 2020, p. 8.

Carrie Anderson, ‘Review of: Black in Rembrandt's time’, Oud Holland Reviews, February 2022.