‘Black’ in the collection of the Centraal Museum of Utrecht in the Netherlands

Other stories in museum collections of  the Netherlands, sometimes centuries old

Dutch version: <‘Black’ in de collectie van het Centraal Museum>

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Charles Roelofsz Fantastische voorstelling 1930
Charles Roelofsz Fantastische voorstelling 1930

Charles Roelofsz 1897 –1962 Fanciful scene 1930 Oil and gouache on canvas, Centraal Museum Collection, Utrecht

Here Charles Roelofsz has chosen to depict two striking, apparently incompatible erotic figures: a white, birdlike woman with wings, who is possibly connected with revue artistes from the stage, and an earthy, black man with a snail’s shell on his back. The colours he used for this work are soft and sugary pastel hues.

Roelofsz became inspired by the combination of unequal things in a non-rational order.

A painter, draughtsman, illustrator and tapestry designer, Charles Roelofsz is regarded as one of the few Dutch surrealists. In 1933 the artist Jacob Bendien 1890 –1933 wrote of the combination of unequal things in De Groene Amsterdammer: ‘These combinations are not thought up. They come into being naturally in the subconscious. It is our sense of the weird and wonderful, not for displays of edification, but for the direct, gripping wonder; that brings these realities together and the tension the wonder, that keeps them together […].’

This fanciful scene by Roelofsz could represent the power of women over men, a popular subject amongst the surrealists.

It also has a number of features from The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a bizarre tale from 1459, popular with alchemists about a number of figures who assume various guises; the story ends with the union of two extremes. Alchemy was also popular with the surrealists, for whom the union of opposites, such as mind and body, was a major theme. The French surrealists met in the Parisian bar Le Bal Nègre where black and white also came together. Esther Schreuder

See for more and footnotes cat Black is beautiful, Rubens tot Dumas (2008)

See below for  Bal Nègre

————————————————Collection  Centraal Museum Utrecht

John Raedecker Bal Negre coll Centraal Museum Utrecht

John Raedecker 1885 –1956 Bal Nègre c. 1929 –1930 Pencil, watercolour and crayon, Centraal Museum Collection, Utrecht on loan from Stichting van Baaren Museum

On this drawing the words ‘Bal Negre’ can just be descried in mirror writing behind the two artistes. The entertainers, probably musicians, are depicted in a hard and almost caricatural fashion in sober colours. The picture is much severer and more dynamic in mood than other drawings by this artist which are considerably more dreamlike. The painting, for which this drawing is probably a preparatory study, turned out quite differently: the people are less caricatural in appearance, the words ‘Bal Negre’ have disappeared and the man and woman appear to be a couple rather than artistes.

John Raedecker Bal Negre detail

Raedecker probably produced this drawing during or after a visit to the Bal Negre at 33 rue Blomet in Paris, not far from where he was living at the time.

The ‘Bal’ had been opened in 1924 by Jean Rezard des Wouves of Martinique, for his compatriots in the French capital.

Every Sunday the Antilleans, and anyone else, of course, could dance there. It quickly became a rendezvous for a wide variety of coloured Parisians, including many Africans and African Americans.

The ‘Bal’ was also discovered by the surrealists, becoming the favourite haunt of Parisian avant-garde artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso 1881 –1973, Robert Desnos 1900 –1945, Andre Masson 1896 –1987, Alexander Calder 1898 –1976, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) 1890 –1976, Moise Kisling 1891 –1953 and Joan Miro 1893 –1983. Miro, Desnos and Masson had their studio in the same street as the ‘Bal’.

Dutch artists like Piet Mondriaan 1872 –1944 and Charley Toorop 1891 –1955 also discovered the bar. It is said that Mondriaan went there almost every day, as he liked ‘negro music’ and ‘negro dancing’ so much. Around 1930 the composer and musician Ernest Leardee 1896 –1988 of Martinique introduced Biguine Jazz and Caribbean jazz here.

Although John Raedecker is chiefly known as a sculptor, he was also a fine draughtsman. Like Picasso and others he looked to the ‘primitives’ for his sculpture.

Early in his career he began to collect African and Melanesian art, which he had first encountered in Paris during his time there in 1911 –1914. He admired these works not only for their beauty but also for the way in which their creators handled difficult material.

ES See for more and footnotes cat Black is beautiful, Rubens tot Dumas (2008)

See also > Bal Negre <

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Battling Siki Isaac Israels coll Centraal Museum Utrecht

Isaac Israels 1865 –1934 Negro boxer (Battling Siki) 1914 –1915 Oil on canvas Centraal Museum Collection, Utrecht,

‘The first black boxer to become truly famous in the Netherlands, was Battling Siki, a Senegalese who was married to a Rotterdam girl’ the Rotterdam European boxing champion Bep van Klaveren explained in 1989. Bep van Klaveren 1907 –1992 knew more about the life of Battling Siki 1897 –1925, including the details of a spectacular victory in 1921:

‘The boy’d got it made. Because of him people began to say that negroes could box better than whites. […] Drew a big audience in those years, you know, a negro who boxed […]’. Van Klaveren also knew how Siki ended up: ‘He could really box, you know, oh yes […] Battling Siki went off to America then, but they beat him total loss over there. I saw him at work there once. Dear, oh dear, he was really laid into. He was on cocaine and someone from the drugs world stabbed him to death in America.’

Israels painted this legendary world champion around 1914 –1915, in the present work which he called Negro boxer. Israels was a great fan of boxing which is one of the reasons why he painted Siki in action several times during his stay in London. This work shows Siki wearing boxing gloves, seated on a stool in the corner ring, during a break between rounds. The vague contours of the public can be discerned in the background.

Everything is represented with brown and black brushstrokes. Siki’s body and face are a patchwork of light and dark brown which emphasises the light falling on his muscled body. The browns range in hue from yellow brown to red brown.

isaac Israels detail Battling Siki

The entire painting expresses a brief moment of repose, shortly after and shortly before an explosion of energy. The boxer seems to be contemplating the continuation of the bout, although it is doubtful whether this was an actual fight: Anna Wagner believes that, to create his boxer paintings, Israёls hired a hall and invited an audience to watch.

Decorative artist Theo Nieuwenhuis 1866 –1951 visited Israels in London in 1915 and reported on these works in a letter to the artist Willem Witsen 1860 –1923. ‘[…] I. has made lovely things in London. Wrestlers, a negro and a white, magnificent in action and in nudity. That is your true nude study […]’.

Israёls certainly produced three oil paintings of Siki: one of the boxer against the ropes, one of him fighting a white opponent and the present work of Siki in a break between rounds. The first of these was printed in 1930 in the ‘Negro number’ of De Groene Amsterdammer. The art critic Albert Plasschaert 1866 –1941 wrote in the accompanying article about black boxers:

‘They are the painters’ novelty, [being] both of a different colour, and of a different shade, and roundabout the highest light on their body different, and against an even blue, rich and new, and that is why painters are painting them now (their colour is essence after all) and while we are glad to see the images of the black in our collection, why that is a defeat for us; for in one respect they are still a rarity, but in another respect they are perhaps fate – that we may not fear, for then that fate becomes materialised and deserved […]’.

He did not further clarify his rather enigmatic final statement. ES

See for more and footnotes ehb. cat Black is beautiful, Rubens tot Dumas (2008)

————————————————–Collection Centraal Museum Utrecht

Abraham Bloemaert 1564 –1651 (and/or Hendrick Bloemaert (1601 –1672)? Baptism of the Chamberlain 1620 –1625 Oil on canvas Centraal Museum, Utrecht on long-term loan from the Instituut Collectie Nederland, Rijswijk

Bloemaert’s Baptism of the Chamberlain is a striking work on account of its monumental dimensions. The painting shows the life-size baptism of the Chamberlain of the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The Chamberlain, a eunuch, is dressed as an officer in the Roman army. He wears a broad, ornamented metal belt around his waist, over a decorated tunic, and a laudamentum, a senior officer’s mantle trimmed with gold. Before him on the ground lies his turban beside his scimitar.


The clothing is fanciful. It was not uncommon to see a black man depicted as a Roman army officer or even an emperor in this period: at least sixteen cameos carved with a black Roman emperor survive from the sixteenth century, while Black Kings were regularly depicted in Roman costume in Netherlandish paintings from the same century .

Drake Jewel coll. V & A London
Drake Jewel Victoria and Albert London Elizabeth 1

The Chamberlain gazes heavenwards in ecstasy and total surrender, thereby suggesting that wealth and military might are thus brought to the true faith. The composition is filled with an imposing group of African onlookers. Since all wear turbans and some are dressed as Roman soldiers, the cortege resembles an army on the warpath rather than the retinue accompanying a high-ranking pilgrim.

Bloemaert undoubtedly wished to allude to the dauntless character of black soldiers, who were known for this quality in Turkish armies of the period. The Turks or Ottomans represented the greatest threat to Christian Europe during the seventeenth century, a period in which the Netherlands was curiously gripped by ‘Turkomania’. The Chamberlain’s large black retinue in the background is an unusual feature of the painting; in Protestant versions of the subject the Chamberlain’s conversion is generally a subdued and serene private scene. The exceedingly theatrical and public nature of the baptism in this work therefore suggests that it would have been made for a Catholic patron. The presence of Turkish and Roman clothing, plus the absence of a Bible, add substance to this hypothesis.

The large format of the work has prompted De Meyere and Roethlisberger to surmise that it was painted to serve as an altarpiece. Abraham Bloemaert is known as a Utrecht painter who exerted a great influence over the Utrecht Caravaggists and classicists. His pupils included Jan van Bijlert 1597/98 –1671, Jan Both (c. 1618 –1652), Nicolaus Knupfer 1609 –1655, Gerrit van Honthorst 1590 –1656 and Bloemaert’s own son Hendrick. Bloemaert expert Gero Seelig attributes the present painting to Hendrick, basing this attribution on the fact that the entire picture plane is filled with people whose heads display little variation. However, other specialists prefer to view Abraham as the maker, in which case Hendrick may have helped his father with this work. ES

See for more and footnotes the exh. catalogue Black is beautiful Rubens to Dumas (2008)

On this site more works from the collection of the Centraal Museum f.i. see < The Archive : surprising works>  and <Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas info>.

Philip Van Dijk familie Friesheim

About me

In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)

In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

All photos on this site are not intended for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way. If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.