In contrast with Paris and Antwerp, where ‘the Orient’ had been a theme for some time, Dutch art academies did not provide their students with black models to study, although Africans, such as the Ethiopian model Adolf Boutar, did pose at artists’ societies. Artists also began to observe and sketch black people in daily life: Isaac Israëls, for example, drew at least two pictures of a black woman and her child watching a show at the recently opened Carré Theatre in Amsterdam.
This sketch is one of the many studies, scribbles, sketches, watercolours and paintings which Breitner made of the Abyssinian, or Ethiopian, model Adolf Boutar, capturing him in pencil, black chalk, charcoal, pastel, pen, watercolour and oil on canvas.
Artists like Breitner took such sketches very seriously and submitted them to exhibitions. In 1888, for example, Breitner sent sketchbooks entitled Four frames with scribbles from the sketchbook to an exhibition organised by the De Nederlandse Etsclub (The Dutch Etching Club) in Amsterdam. He believed that the principle of expression, then highly valued, appeared to best advantage in these ‘scribbles’. It was important for artists in this period to display spontaneous, free expression.
In Breitner’s study Boutar appears to be a warrior. In other sketches probably drawn from the same ‘pose’, the artist concentrated on the man’s profile and back as well. This study may even be the first step in the creation of the magnificent painting The usher (first picture)
Breitner uses the sketch to study the angles, lines and light falling on the Ethiopian’s tawny body.
The finished painting, The usher, also known as The eunuch or African warrior won a great deal of praise, even in Breitner’s lifetime.
‘It is one of the best works by Breitner that I know’, wrote Theo Molkenboer in De Amsterdammer on 19 April 1896.
Breitner placed Boutar before a dark-red background, which accentuates the white cloth in which he is wrapped and the light reflecting on his skin and in the angles of his body. The Ethiopian is tall and thin, filling the picture plane vertically; his sword crosses this plane horizontally. Breitner has also painted the man from a low viewpoint, which makes him appear more impressive. He is probably intended to represent an usher, or doorkeeper, in a harem.
Breitner’s watercolour The Arab (De Arabier) is also an orientalising, fantasy impression, which shows a half-nude, dark-skinned man in a dark space taking something out of a bowl. It is difficult to tell whether the figure is a North African or a black African. Breitner’s Rembrandtesque decision to place the brown man before a brown background is characteristic. His interest clearly lay in the impression and colour scheme of an exotic situation. The work has been entirely staged. Breitner must have built the Arab’s hut in his own studio or at Pulchri Studio in The Hague.
Other works produced by Breitner on the same day reveal that the model was not an ‘Arab’ but Boutar. An almost identical work was exhibited in 1933, and earlier, under the title The negro (private collection). More related works are also known, all bearing different titles. In the majority of these it is not possible to see precisely who the man is, only the figure bending forward in the drawing Seated African (present whereabouts unknown), produced on the same day, can clearly be identified as Boutar.
Breitner produced a number of works featuring black people. These generally found favour. The critic W. Steenhoff wrote in 1911:
‘From Breitner I was most pleased to see, amongst various works from recent years the old wellknown watercolour, representing a seated negro. Before such a powerful piece of painting (even if it is executed in watercolour), before such a warmblooded demonstration, one is convinced, more than with the paintings present […] and above all the other watercolours, that the greatness of this painter has never been overestimated.’
Esther Schreuder in : Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas (2008)
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