Historians of Netherlandish Art review: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and slavery

HNA (Historians of Netherlandish Art review)

With a focus on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Slavery

Book Cover of The Slave in European Art
Book Cover of The Slave in European Art

Elizabeth McGrath and Jean Michel Massing, eds., The Slave in European Art. From Renaissance Trophy to Abolitionist Emblem (Warburg Institute Colloquia, 20). London/Turin: Warburg Institute/Nino Aragno, 2012. 386 pp, 15 color, 157 b&w illus. ISBN 978-1-908590-43-5.

Yet another of the splendid consequences for scholarship of the revival of the dormant project, The Image of the Black in Western Art, was the association of its images with the iconographic library at the Warburg Institute. Many contributors to this volume, the product of a Warburg conference in 2007, soon afterwards participated in a landmark exhibition in Amsterdam, Black is Beautiful (Nieuwe Kerk, 2008; reviewed in this journal April 2010) and went on to offer illuminating essays to the published volumes of The Image of the Black series, edited by David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press (3 vols., 2010-11; reviewed in this journal April 2012). So despite the staggered timing of publication, these essays offer detailed studies that complement the more generalized overviews of the Harvard compendium, which has finally inserted the crucial early modern period – here defined as 1500-1800 – into accounts of how racialization developed to alter the understanding of black humankind. Indeed the first color plate of the volume could serve as its ultimate epigraph: Josiah Wedgwood’s 1787 medallion shows an isolated black African kneeling in profile while bound in chains together with his plaintive motto, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

The Warburg volume has a sharper focus – on slaves and on the abolition movement (its 2007 date coincided with the bicentenary of Britain’s ending of the slave trade). In fact, medieval slavery was dominated by whites, abducted chiefly from the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. But the early modern period increasingly turned to black Africa as its supply of slaves, the indirect product of the West African voyages of discovery by Portuguese explorers across the fifteenth century and of emerging plantation culture in the shared tropical climate of colonial Brazil and the Caribbean. In this period slavery came to be identified increasingly with blacks.

Like any conference volume, this one varies in its subjects and their breadth. More general studies include essays by the editors: a thematic introduction by McGrath and a study of Mediterranean slavery images in both paintings and prints analyzed by Massing. Slave trade to the Americas is studied by Carmen Fracchia for New Spain, and Ernst van den Boogaart focuses on the brief but momentous episode of Dutch Brazil (1637-52). Later book illustrations, studied by Elmer Kolfin, align more with eighteenth-century British imagery (including caricature) about abolition, which provides topics for Meredith Gamer, David Bindman, and Temi Odumosu. Only in this later period do we find imagery that represents actual slave sales (though in Charles Robertson’s essay, fig. 16, a German broadsheet after 1526 by Erhard Schoen, accuses the Turks of selling captive Christians).

Additional essays consider Italian imagery – from Michelangelo’s allegorical “slaves” (called “prisoners” by contemporaries; see Robertson), to Vasari’s and Borghini’s festive presentation of Turkish captives in naval battles (Rick Scorza), to Pietro Tacca’s influential shackled Moors on his Livorno monument to Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici (Anthea Brook; also mentioned in Massing’s article). In the only outlier essay Jean-Luc Liez discusses how slavery became a religious metaphor for spiritual liberation for the Trinitarian Order, founded in 1198, which ransomed real slaves.

McGrath relates imagery of slaves to the heritage of the caryatid/atlantid, a strong yet morosely subdued supporter of heavy weight (Michelangelo surely drew upon this conceit for his Tomb of Julius II; see Robertson). McGrath also perceptively notes how often a metal collar marks the social inferiority of the slave. More literal captives on the base of a monument later informed the Tacca monument; these galley slaves captured in sea combat against Ottoman foes attested to the power of the ruler (Brook) and also updated the ancient theme of a triumphal entry by a conqueror with his captives in tow. The easy slippage between blacks as Moors and more ethnically identifiable captive Turks (mustachioed and wearing topknots on shaved heads) merges on the Tacca monument as well as in Scorza’s essay, and especially in Massing’s imagery about typical Mediterranean port imagery by artists of varied countries, including etchings by Callot and della Bella and numerous Dutch painted examples (the subject of a dissertation by Christine Schloss, cited at n. 28).

For students of imagery of blacks in European art, the remaining essays, about Spain, Dutch Brazil, and England, address core issues of black slavery and its abolition. In fact, it was chiefly Portuguese (and later Dutch and English) traders on the African coast who populated the new world with black slaves, but New Spain redirected them. Fracchia adduces early slave imagery by Christoph Weiditz (1529), and she even discusses Juan de Pareja, the slave assistant of Velázquez, but she underplays the far more significant eighteenth-century Spanish colonial obsession with racial mixing, charted in visual permutations called casta paintings (pp. 204-06; to her references add Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting, New Haven, 2004).

The same theme of racial mixing in Brazil forms a core issue in Ernst van den Boogaart’s authoritative study, probably most pertinent to HNA membership. His imagery includes the human content of Frans Post landscapes, especially those made on site before the artist’s return to Holland and those vignettes of activities included on Blaeu maps (1647) of Dutch Brazil, in addition to the more familiar life-sized “ethnographic portrait” pairs painted in a scale of civility (but without any Dutch or Portuguese) by Albert Eckhout. Van den Boogaart makes the useful distinction in these normative images between Post’s historia moralis, figures in a human setting, and Eckhout’s historia naturalis, figures in nature. Indeed, the Blaeu vignettes contrast a primitive subsistence before colonization with productive labor and mutuality between masters and slaves under the new regime. Both artistic projects, however, engaged the issue of relative civility of American natives and imported Africans, as well as the position of slaves in a new constructed society. The author notes that both racial mixing and manumission were more frequent in multi-ethnic Dutch Brazil than elsewhere in American plantations and that such relative judgments were “clearly ethnocentric, but not racist or doctrinaire.” (p. 235)

These same issues also recur in the Dutch printed books analyzed by Elmer Kolfin (esp. p. 256-59), whose essay chiefly monitors the changes of attitudes and conventions that increasingly turned against slavery and treatment of slaves across the eighteenth century, especially in France and England. That study introduces the concluding segment on England and abolition. Here the study by Meredith Gamer should be singled out for its analysis of George Morland’s ambivalent first anti-slavery pictures: Slave Trade (1788) and African Hospitality (1790), reproduced as mezzotints by John Raphael Smith.

Larry Silver
University of Pennsylvania

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