A Blockbuster Exhibition in 1883 on the Museumplein in Amsterdam

Charles Rochussen

Indigenous Surinamese at the colonial exhibition in Amsterdam 1883 Charles Rochussen 1814 –1894, Watercolour on paper, 70 x 82.2 cm Wereldmuseum Rotterdam Collection,

detail 1

This hand-coloured drawing by Rochussen affords an impression of the Surinamese village displayed in Museumplein in Amsterdam as part of the 1883 Colonial Exhibition. In the foreground is an inset showing implements and a parrot.

detail RP-F-1994-12-4
collection Rijksmuseum detail RP-F-1994-12-4

Comparison with a group photograph of the exhibit suggests that Rochussen adhered closely to the actual situation, although he avoided including any of the Dutch objects or people that appear in the photo, thereby producing what seems to be an impression of a village in Surinam.

The illusion is even stronger in the separate drawings which he made of the ‘Indians’ who appear to be truly ‘at home’.

lenka-ka-ma,,Moen-di & haar dochtertje Elisabeth, Hindoe moeder, Caraïb vader, Rochussen 2
lenka-ka-ma,,Moen-di & haar dochtertje Elisabeth, Hindoe moeder, Caraïb vader, Rochussen collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam
Ko-le-tée.  A-wara-henne
Ko-le-tée. A-wara-henne. collection Wereldmuseum Rotterdam

The Surinamese in Rochussen’s drawing spent the entire day in and around their imitation huts where they were viewed by the public.


This allowed the Dutch to become acquainted with the people from the colony and various Surinamese cultures, whose representatives came to the Netherlands of their own volition. That does not mean that they enjoyed the attention. It was very disappointing on many accounts.

Portret van Maja-Roekama, en face, Roland Napoleon Bonaparte, Roche, A. Quantin, 1883 - 1884 RP-F-1994-12-20
Portret van Maja-Roekam collection Rijksmuseum
Bonaparte RP-F-1994-12-45 detail

During their time in Amsterdam the Surinamese were extensively recorded by various photographers and interviewed by newspapers.

The finest and best known photographs, by Prince Roland Bonaparte, were published in Les Habitants de Suriname. The skulls of the Surinamese were also measured for statistics, for anthropologists rarely travelled in this period and derived their information from such exhibitions and publications.

One and a half million visitors came to the exhibition. And while such exhibitions are viewed with repugnance nowadays, in their time they did offer many people in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe an excellent opportunity to experience the world outside Europe, especially the products and art produced by this world. Artists, designers and musicians who visited the exhibition also gained new ideas there Visitors could see the ingenious woodcuts and colourful cloths of the Maroons, the clothing worn by city Creoles and the bold headdresses of the ‘ Indians’.

Rochussen illustrated many books, including adventure books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, De spoorzoeker: schetsen en tonelen uit de Amerikaanse wildernis, Dwars door Africa (1881) and Avontuurlijke reizen door alle werelddelen (1879).

Oom tom rochussen
De koloniën brengen hulde aan de Nederlandse maagd, Charles Rochussen, 1852 SK-A-4935
De koloniën brengen hulde aan de Nederlandse maagd , Charles Rochussen, 1852 SK-A-4935

Another work by Rochussen: The colonies to pay tribute to the Dutch maiden. It is hardly surprising he went to Museumplein to take a look at the Surinamese.

In his time Rochussen was famous. As an artist he was a bridge between the old and new painterly movements of the nineteenth century. Breitner, one of the young guard, was one of his pupils (see post on Breitner and Boutar) .

Text Esther Schreuder in Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas (2008)


Halbertsma 1997, p. 70; Roodenburg 2002, p. 40; Verheggen 2006; exhibition catalogues: Amsterdam 1978, pp. 15-16, 300, Laetitia Dujardin, Ethnics and Trade: Photography and the Colonial Exhibitions in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Brussels (Rijksmuseum) . See also http://www.Buku.nl for more pictures and the Rijksmuseum collection.

For more information  estherschreuderwebsite@gmail.com

Research has been made possible thanks to a contribution of de Mondriaan foundation, AFK and VSB fonds.

About me:

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

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

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